Saturday, January 20, 2007

Posthumous Procreation

Wow. A dead soldier's parents have "won the right to [extract and] use their dead son's sperm to inseminate a woman he never met." Is this ethical?

The news article focuses on the family, and how happy they are to be able to continue their bloodline. Thom Brooks seems to focus on the dead soldier, worried that all this is happening without his consent. But what about the child? What will life be like for him, knowing that he was fathered by a corpse? Might it be psychologically damaging -- could it, for example, destabilize his sense of identity?

David Velleman has forcefully argued [PDF] against anonymous sperm donation on the grounds that children have a vital interest in knowing their biological parents. This isn't quite the same, since the child can at least know who his father was, but the underlying concerns are at least similar. As Harry at CT summarized it:
Velleman’s deeper project is to criticise what he regards as an ideological view that simply wanting a child is sufficient grounds to be able to have one; the redefinition of the family to mean “whatever arrangement the adult seeking to procreate has created for the child”.

I think it has to be acknowledged that the child is morally relevant here, and it does seem unfortunate to be born without a father - let alone to have been conceived by a dead man! So there is at least something morally unfortunate about this story. Whether it's serious enough to make the family's actions wrong is, of course, a further question (especially since the child is not, strictly speaking, harmed by being brought into existence so).

It's also worth bearing in mind Majikthise's argument that "the world is manifestly better off when couples can become happy parents and wanted children are brought into the world... Valuing families should imply valuing the creation of families for people who want them." So perhaps the worst that can be said of this family's situation is simply that - like every other - it falls short of perfection.

What say you?


  1. "Velleman’s deeper project is to criticise what he regards as an ideological view that simply wanting a child is sufficient grounds to be able to have one"

    well, the problem is that, for the vast majority of people, wanting a child actually *is* sufficient grounds for having one. no matter how bad those people are going to be as parents, no one has (at least a legal) right to stop them from conceiving a child. so, given that people can have children all over the place, for the worst possible reasons, it does sound a bit hypocritical to take this right away from singles and homosexuals.

    this is, of course, a comment on Velleman's point, not so much on this specific post.

  2. ", no one has (at least a legal) right to stop them from conceiving a child."

    I doubt Velleman would disagree. At least, I understand his point as being purely ethical in nature, i.e. that it might be wrong for people to have a child in such circumstances. It doesn't follow that anyone else, let alone the blunt instrument of the law, ought to stop them.

  3. I don't know what motives the parents have, but I doubt it's either here or there. Let's just assume that they have the best of motives. That they want a child not for silly daisy-growing reasons, but for good reasons (whatever you think they are).

    I want to do this because I don't think anyone's real objections to this are based on the motives of the parents, but on something else. I'm also not so sure whether what we really care about is the wishes of the dead father. Let's just suppose that that was in his will, that that's what he wanted.

    I think the real issue is whether people should be (ethically) permitted to make babies with sperm taken from someone who is now dead.

    I'm with Richard in thinking that what really matters is the child. But I'm not so convinced that this would be bad for the child in a way different than him or her being raised in a single-parent home in general. What's the difference between a man and a woman having a child, and then the father dies, versus the father dies, and then "they" have children? Why would "my father was dead when his sperm was taken and I was made" have any impact on a child's sense of identity at all?

    I agree that it is morally unfortunate, but I think this is just as morally unfortunate as when a child is conceived only to have his father (or mother) die a bit later.

    I wonder if there is any difference worth talking about between a child born in this way, and a child that is conceived with the parents knowledge that, for instance, the father has only a month to live because of cancer or something like that.

  4. Just to clarify: I think the ethical question turns on the empirical one of how the situation would affect the child. I think it's plausibly different from the cancer case, at least for socially constructed reasons, i.e. the fact that everyone else will treat it differently (as Don Jr. points out). But if it weren't for that, then I'd agree with Jaworski. (I can't see anything intrinsically wrong with posthumous procreation.)

    Don Jr. - I've never been a fan of slippery slope arguments. You ask, "Why not preserve the seed and use it many centuries down the road?" To which I respond, "Indeed, why not?" If there's a good reason to oppose the latter policy, then that reason will stand on its own -- no need to worry about slipping. And if there's no good reason, well, we certainly shouldn't be obstructing others' freedom just for the hell of it. So, where do we stop? Where the good reasons start...

  5. don: I'm not sure whether taking money from your dead son is stealing. Who are you stealing it from? A dead man? But a dead man is not a man, but a corpse.

    We should probably respect the wishes of the dead, but I suspect that we should do this not for the sake of the dead, but for the sake of the living. When we don't do what Jones' will says he wants done when dead, then Smith might change his behaviour in ways that we don't like, just because Smith worries that what he wants won't be done once he's dead.

    It seems right to me to assume that, other things being equal, we should hand the property of the deceased to their closest kin, for them to decide what to do with it. Barring reasons *not* to do this (e.g. the family didn't get along, the son hated his parents, or something like that), there is little reason not to give all decision-making authority about property, remains, and so on, to the next-of-kin. I suspect this includes sperm, but I'm not so sure of this suspicion.

    Richard: I don't think there is anything intrinsically wrong with, uhm, anything (I guess). What matters is the impact of the thing on moral subjects/patients (maybe dead people are moral patients, or something like that). I agree with the assessment that what ultimately matters (or what matters most significantly) is the impact on the child, and that this is to be determined empirically.

    Other than these clarificatory points, I have nothing substantive to offer, I'm afraid. I still have no idea what I think of this issue, nor where I stand on it. But a sentiment coming close to disgust rises in my stomach when I think of a case like this. I don't want to suggest that this is reason, all on its own, to think this case morally bad. But it is reason to inquire further to see if the sentiment stems, in some complicated way, to moral commitments that I hold, or whether it is merely an aesthetic judgment that I'm passing on this (or some other option).

  6. (See the latter half of this post for discussion of whether we can be harmed by events that occur after our death.)

  7. I'm afraid I have only intuition to offer here, but this strikes me as morally equivalent to a case where a woman in a persistent vegetative state is used as a baby machine: I'm not sure why or even whether it's morally wrong, but I suspect it's a path we shouldn't start down.

  8. There are some excellent comments here and I'm glad my noting this case has sparked such an interesting debate. By and large, I'm afraid I side with Don.

    Many who are pro-life argue that what's at stake is not a mother's right to choose (as such), but the fetus's right to life. They claim our focus should be on the child.

    In this case, I can't see why our focus should be on the no child (nor zygote) exists. Indeed, all we have is a legal decision that says that sperm will be removed from their dead son's body for safe storage until a woman is found for artificial insemination---and a search conducted with someone selected by the parents. She has not been artificially inseminated and there is no zygote/fetus/child as of yet. So we're talking about a potential child, not an actual child.

    Of course, I have nothing against grandparents raising children at all. If they are left in care of a child and our focus is the child, then all seems well.

    I recognize that it will probably be quite psychologically damaging for a child to know a corpse was his/her father, but how damaging it would be I have no idea and leave to social psychologists.

    The thought is simple. This poor soldier was killed and buried. There is no evidence beyond the hearsay of his parents that this soldier wanted children. He never had the chance to have children and so his parents want him to have children long after he is dead.

    Matthew Liao speaks of the right for children to be loved in a recent J Pol Phil article. I know of no presumed right to have children....even in death. In fact, it isn't clear that the dead have any rights, perhaps other than a right to our respect.

    And yet the case is couched in such terms, as I understand it. If this were about the right of living relatives to keep their bloodlines going, then do we open the doors to digging up graves across the country to collect sperm and eggs...? This seems beyond contempt. How many years dead is enough...? I take it that conventional morality is united on this case: it offends all sense of common decency.

    Good consequences...? I'm not sure what these would be. Perhaps producing happy children is a wonderful result, but not clear why we must dig up graves to do it...and, again, I think such an extreme move offends common decency, if nothing else.

    Imagine this consequence. A fellow dies, leaving what is left from his estate to a charity. He was despised by his family who feel double-betrayed by his giving money elsewhere (and, say, to a charity they resent). And so they claim he wanted to father a child, offering no more evidence than their good word. The deceased is then dug up, his semen extracted, a donor found, and child conceived. It turns out that the expenses for raising the child exhaust the profits of the deceased's the charity gets nothing.

    Do we find this case wrong because (a) we should never extract semen/eggs from those who have died, especially after they have been buried, or (b) the consequences? If (a), then we should be against the Israeli case as well. If (b), then we cannot guarantee any consequences either way and are open to similar (or worse) results.

    If you think the case is ok, I'd be interested to learn why.

  9. Hi Thom, I think we need to be careful here not to confuse our modalities. Future children are "actual" enough -- they simply aren't present. (Surely we can't just ignore the interests of future individuals! You must agree that knowingly taking thalidomide or similarly harmful drugs during pregnancy would be wrong, for instance.) Again, see my post on the temporal acrobatics of harm for a more in-depth analysis of these issues.

    I don't think your "estate" example has anything essentially to do with posthumous procreation. The entire issue there seems to be disrespect for the will/property of the deceased. I do agree with you that that's wrong. But I think it's more interesting to abstract away from that and consider posthumous procreation on its own terms. E.g. imagine that the soldier had given clear written consent: would it still be wrong?

    (I tend to think that appeals to "common decency" are just so much handwaving.)

  10. A "future child", or zygote, that hasn't been conceived does not exist. Nonexistent beings don't have feelings or consciousness. How are they "actual" or entitled to anything?


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