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IVF after Death: Get Religion, March 9, 2012 March 10, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Abortion/Euthanasia/Biotechnology, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Bottle of mine, it’s you I’ve always wanted!
Bottle of mine, why was I ever decanted?
Skies are blue inside of you,
The weather’s always fine;
For … There ain’t no Bottle in all the world
Like that dear little Bottle of mine.

I expect most GetReligion readers will recognize this passage from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The 1932 novel portrays a world without mothers or fathers. Where humanity is engineered as embryos. A world where babies are decanted not born.

An article in the German daily Die Welt entiled “Witwe kämpft um das Sperma ihres toten Mannes” (Women fights for her dead husband’s sperm) brought this book to mind — as well as the ’70’s flick the Boys from Brazil.

Die Welt has printed a sympathetic account of a 29 year old widow’s attempt to conceive a child through In Vitro Fertilization from the sperm of her deceased husband. The hook for this story is that her quest flies in the face of German laws which forbid the use of sperm or eggs from a deceased person in artificial insemination. An English version of the article can be found here.

As my colleagues at GetReligion have noted, the moral issues surrounding IVF are seldom addressed in the U.S. press. But in this German article we find no hint that there are any moral and ethical questions involved. What we have in this story is a piece about desire, with no degree of self-awareness that the article treats children as commodities.

The story begins:

Rike R.’s face radiates joy as she remembers her husband – her soulmate. Despite the tough-guy impression his multiple tattoos and piercings may have given off, he was in fact a very shy man, she recalls.

The 29-year-old woman talks about their five years together, and the fact that life gave her such a great love – something she had thought would never be hers. Her mood changes quickly, though, as she is reminded of their shattered dream of having a child together. Going over in her head the details of her husband’s recent passing, of how she held him in her arms, she begins to sob with her whole body, the tears flowing down her cheeks.

And it continues in this vein, recounting her husband, Holger’s, unsuccessful battle with cancer.

“We’d planned to have a child, and so we decided that, before chemo began, Holger would have some sperm frozen,” says the young widow. They also married, and she began hormone therapy. Things took an unexpected turn in February of this year, however, when Holger’s condition suddenly worsened dramatically. He was running a very high temperature, and could no longer eat. Just a few days later, on Feb. 11, he died.

And in paragraph six (of twelve) we reach the issue raised in the headline.

Shortly afterwards, Rike R. suffered a second shock when the clinic for reproductive medicine told her — one week before she was due to be artificially inseminated — that the hormone therapy would be stopped and that her husband’s sperm could neither be used nor handed out to her. Technically they should also destroy the sperm, doctors said, but in view of Rike R.’s present emotional fragility they would not proceed with that right away.

The clinic’s strict adherence to the rules is fueled by fears of legal repercussions should it in any way be construed as aiding and abetting a pregnancy that under German law can no longer take place. It is strictly forbidden in Germany to use the sperm or eggs of a dead person for artificial insemination. “My only hope was that I could still have our baby,” says Rike R. And she doesn’t understand why “what we so wished for together, the thing Holger deeply wanted to happen when he died and which is my only consolation now that he’s gone” can’t happen.

The author’s voice appears at this stage ..

The clinic’s position may seem heartless, but it is in accordance with German laws governing the protection of embryos. Violations are punishable, so clinics commit to using neither the sperm nor eggs of a deceased person for artificial insemination. Nor will they even release them, for fear that a person could take the sperm or eggs abroad to a country where insemination under those conditions would be legal.

The article winds down with a vow from Rike that she will fight on, and a note that her cause has been taken up by fans of a local football (soccer) club in Hamburg.

So what’s the problem? Die Welt appears to believe that there is only one side to this issue — Rike’s desire to have a child with her dead husband. There is no discussion of why German law forbids artificial insemination from the eggs or sperm of the dead. The article manipulates the reader by placing Rike’s feelings against that of the clinic’s “heartless” conformity to the law. The assumption underlying this story is that personal desire has primacy over all other considerations. Because Rike wants a child to be conceived with her dead husband, she should have a right to this child.

I find that frightening — and somewhat creepy. My reading of this tragic story is that Die Welt does not appear to hear the moral or religious chords that posthumous parenting sound. After reporting upon Rike’s desire it appears satisfied that it has done its job and abandons further discussion of “why”.

This story appears to have been written in isolation to the intellectual, legal and religious debates the issue has generated in Europe. The Catholic and Evangelical churches in Germany have released a number of joint statements that support the state’s tight controls on IVF. There is no mention of this — nor even an awareness from Die Welt that this might be germane.

Nor do we hear about the wider legal and ethical debates taking place. In 2011 the Supreme Court of New South Wales ruled that the preserved sperm of a deceased man was the property of his estate. The court held that the dead man’s wife thus held a property interest in the sperm and could use it for IVF. The husband died before he gave his express written consent for the use of his sperm after death — a requirement under Australian law. Written consent was no longer necessary prior to IVF treatment because sperm, eggs, embryos are property in Australia — the ramifications of that are extraordinary.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also been asked to decide whether children conceived through IVF after the death of their biological father are entitled to receive Social Security survivor benefits. How human are these children?

In the Caputo case, the Social Security Administration denied a claim filed by a women on behalf of her twins born 18 months after the death of their father. The issue before the court is whether children conceived after the death of their father may receive Federal welfare benefits, even though they cannot inherit personal property from the father under state intestacy laws.

We have reached the point where “Developing reproductive technology has outpaced federal and state laws, which currently do not address directly the legal issues created by posthumous conception,” the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has noted.

This article could have been done a number of different ways. If Die Welt wanted to keep away from the moral issues, it could have lightened the tone — acknowledging the existence of moral questions, but using humor or some other distraction to indicate that it was not going there.

Sonja: Oh don’t, Boris, please. Sex without love is an empty experience.
Boris: Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.

From Love and Death by Woody Allen (1975)

Instead we have a tearjerker tailor made for Bette Davis. There is no subtlety, no nuance, no real reporting. Die Welt would have done a much better job in placing Rike’s tragedy against the state’s reasons for not acceding to her wishes. That would have been a compelling article. Instead we have this weepy puff piece.

What say you GetReligion readers? Should Die Welt have broadened its focus? Am I being heartless? Are there two sides to this issue? How should journalists report upon the ethical implications of IVF? Are there ethical implications to IVF from the eggs or sperm of the dead? Have we made having children a fetish — or is this a natural right? Can we even speak of natural rights when they are achieved by unnatural means?

First printed in GetReligion.