TAKING sperm from a corpse in New York state may soon be possible only if the man gave written consent before his death. A bill now before the state legislature would also ensure that only the dead man's spouse or partner could request sperm retrieval. The bill marks the first serious attempt to regulate America's private fertility clinics, which are effectively govemed only by the scruples of the doctors involved. Its author, Roy Goodman, a Republican state senator from Manhattan, hopes it will become law within a year. Alarm over the practice of retrieving sperm from corpses stems from a survey by two bioethicists, who showed that it is surprisingly common (This Week, 30 November 1996, p 5). In a survey of 273 fertility clinics in the US and Canada, Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Susan Kerr of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston found that 14 admitted to taking sperm samples from a total of 25 men. Demand is rising: between 1980 and 1994, the clinics reported 39 requests for the procedure, while in 1995 alone there were 43 requests. The requests came mostly from the man's partner, parents or other members of his immediate family. But in two cases, an unrelated person requested a sample-a nurse and a social worker, who each said they were acting on behalf of an unidentified third party. Since then, Caplan has become aware of two cases where sperm was withdrawn from frozen storage.
'We'd all be best served by one law governing all aspects of the problem'
Goodman says that it was details like these that spurred him on. "What's disturbing is that an individual could be posthumously the parent of a child that he never had any intention of creating." Some IVF specialists believe Goodman has gone too far, however. "This law isn't anything to be proud of," says Cappy Rothman of Century City Hospital in Los Angeles, who performed the first documented posthumous sperm retrieval in 1980 (Fertility and Sterility, vol 34, p 512). Rothman says he offers the procedure because it comforts families who feel they have salvaged some part of a loved one's life. Sperm retrieval must be done soon after death, he notes, and few families think about the issue before being confronted with a dying relative-who may be in no position to give his consent. "This is cruel and unusual punishment," says Rothman, who argues that any law should govern the use of sperm, not its retrieval. Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act takes this approach, requiring prior consent from a man for his partner to use his sperm for fertilisation after his death. Caplan agrees that restrictions should focus on the use of the extracted sperm. But he believes a wider legal framework is needed, as doctors start to freeze unfertilised eggs or whole ovaries from corpses-and even contemplate human cloning. "We'd all be best served by one law goveming all aspects of postmortem reproduction," he says. Philip Cohen