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07/23/2010

Could Posthumous Egg Donation Ever Be Morally Acceptable?

A recent report from NEJM about a surviving husband to have the eggs of his dead wife harvested in order to create a posthumous child has raised the question of gender equity in the posthumous harvesting of gametes. With the harvesting of sperm from dead men having been well-explored, women’s reproductive material is also entering the post-life harvesting category.

The concerns in the particular NEJM case were clear: the wife had recently suffered irreversible brain damage as the result of a heart attack, life support was removed, and then the husband asked to have the respirator turned back on (yes, turned back on) to keep his wife alive long enough to have the hormone injections put into her necessary for the harvesting of her eggs. Luckily, the medical team did not accede to his request.

Why?

According to the NEJM article, the patient had never clearly expressed such wishes, nor had the husband. Until now. Moreover, she was on oral contraceptive pills to prevent pregnancy. No advance directive existed–not that it would have likely covered posthumous reproduction!

So what could have ever justified such a case as this? In my mind, nothing. But could there be such a case of posthumous egg harvesting, of course. In a case where a married woman suffers a tragic, sudden, life-threatening event and where she had previously expressed to her partner/husband/family the strong desire to have a child, one could strongly argue for the posthumous harvesting of her eggs.

And yes, I think this is the same standard to which the posthumous harvesting of sperm should be held to as well.

Unfortunately, this NEJM case was not one of those. The pull that the husband must have felt not to “lose” his wife must have been incredible, but the answer was not to put her through a medically inappropriate procedure, keeping her alive unnecessarily and harmfully to try to result in a reproductive act that neither she nor he would have wanted under ordinary circumstances.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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