PHILADELPHIA - More women are seeking to be artificially inseminated with dead men's sperm, University of Pennsylvania researchers have found.
For over a decade, the postmortem insemination has been done only when men give their consent before they die.
But in the last few years, requests for sperm extraction from men who did not give prior consent have increased significantly, according to a study published in the June issue of the Journal of Urology.
Ethical questions raised by the extraction of sperm from unconsenting corpses haven't been addressed, the study authors say.
"I think the ethical issues really boil down to, Should we be making babies without consent? If so, for whom?" said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics.
Sperm can be taken from a man's body up to 48 hours after death. It can be removed surgically from the urethra or testicles, or by placing an electrical prod on the prostate, causing ejaculation.
Once removed, the sperm can be frozen and preserved.
In 1995, Mr. Caplan and University of Texas graduate student Susan Kerr surveyed 273 fertility clinics across the country. Half didn't know about post-mortem sperm extraction, Mr. Caplan said.
The clinics reported 82 requests for post-mortem sperm extraction without the man's prior consent between 1980 and 1995. More than half the requests were between June 1994 and July 1995.
In Pennsylvania, four requests were made and two were granted. At least one was in the Philadelphia area, Mr. Caplan said.
Most of the people requesting the sperm extractions were the wives, fiancees or girlfriends of the deceased.
The dead donors were mostly in their 20s and 30s. One was 60. Two were under age 18. Most died suddenly in accidents.
Most of the decisions allowing the sperm extraction were made by doctors acting alone. There are no laws or policies governing the procedure.
Unanswered ethical questions include whether it's in a child's best interest to grow up without a father, and who should be able to get the sperm.
"This is a technology just at its launch point," Mr. Caplan said. "We can still regulate reproduction after death. It's not too late. But we really do need to move on the kinds of issues raised by our study."
He predicts the same debate over preserving female eggs in a few years. He believes babies will eventually be able to be conceived when both parents are dead, which raises even deeper questions.