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Cherished Child or Souvenir Baby?

Science: Sperm can be frozen for use after a man's death. But should it? Would it be ethical to sell it? As our technology advances, experts grapple with these dilemmas.

March 04, 1997|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whose sperm is it, anyway?

When it was first revealed last week, a California Supreme Court case that allowed a Los Angeles woman to take possession of 12 vials of semen frozen by her lover before he took his life almost six years ago may have seemed startling. But far from a curiosity, reserving sperm for use after a man's death turns out to be an increasingly common practice--made more so by rapidly evolving technology.

The sudden availability of a process once imagined only on the pages of bad science fiction raises a raft of questions. Should a man be able to will his sperm, as if it were a favorite household possession? What is the life span of frozen sperm? Should anyone have the right to destroy it after a donor's death--and if so, who? Should it be available for sale? Does a child born from the sperm of a dead man have a right to know about his or her father? Can that child make claim on the father's estate? And if trophy wives are a valued cultural commodity, will we now see souvenir babies?

While Deborah Hecht, 42, reveled in her courtroom victory against the grown children of her late boyfriend, Bill Kane--and prepared to use Kane's sperm in an attempt to become pregnant--experts in the burgeoning field of reproductive technology grappled with these dilemmas.

"Our technology is far more advanced than our emotions on this topic--and our morals," said Anita Neff, administrative director of the Repository for Germinal Choice in Escondido.

The largest sperm bank in the world, California Cryobank Inc. of Westwood, where Kane stored his sperm, is only 20 years old. It lists 2,000 active accounts at three locations. Regulations, where they exist, have evolved along with the practice.

But using sperm from a dead man seemed to be in an ethical category of its own, raising further questions about a process known as "posthumous reproduction." Even that term invited questions. University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor Evelyne Shuster conceded, "It does sound like an oxymoron, doesn't it?"

Yet the notion of progeny-from-the-grave has long since left the realm of the abstract. Some U.S. soldiers who went off to fight in the Persian Gulf War made a stop at the local sperm bank first.

Men who face chemotherapy or radiation treatment often bank their sperm beforehand, said Ronda Wilkin of California Cryobank.

Ethicist George Annas, an attorney who teaches at Boston University's School of Medicine, said that leaving sperm to an estate may not be as clear-cut as choosing an heir for a prized Persian rug. "Should sperm be destroyed when someone dies?" he wondered. "Should you be able to leave your sperm to someone after you die, like the furniture?"

Wilkin said one immediate outcome of the Kane case was a change in the wording of its contracts. Before storing sperm, a donor must either request that the cryobank destroy the frozen sperm after his death, donate it for medical research or name a specific person or organization to whom it will be given.

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The precise life span of frozen sperm has never been determined. However, the technology used in human insemination is modeled after procedures used for many years in agriculture. In one instance, researchers implanted bull semen that had been frozen for 32 years into a cow, which then gave birth to a healthy calf.

The recent appearance in Scotland of Dolly, the laboratory-cloned sheep, merely heightened the debate for many who study the implications of high-tech reproduction. "People can't get their minds around how fast this is all developing," said Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet, an expert in laws pertaining to reproductive technology.

Nineteen years ago, "on the eve of the birth of baby Louise Brown"--the world's first child born via in vitro fertilization--"people thought, 'Oh, test tube babies, that's 21st century stuff,' " she said. "Now it's standard operating procedure."

Great Britain, where Brown was born in 1978, is among a number of countries that have adopted regulations governing new reproductive technology. A British statute holds, for example, that frozen genetic material that has gone unclaimed by family members must be destroyed five years after initial storage. In France, doctors can refuse to perform artificial insemination on menopausal women.

By contrast, said Bartholet, "I have been saying for years that it is problematic and anomalous that the United States stands out against all other countries with our state of technology, in that it has not had a national commission to at least think about the ethical and regulatory issues." Instead, she said, this country's policies have evolved largely on a case-by-case basis.

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