Relations Reporting on marriage, family, and sexuality

Life after death

Family | A New York judge allows posthumous reproduction
by Kiley Crossland
Posted 5/31/19, 12:53 pm

A New York Supreme Court judge this month ruled that the parents of a 21-year-old man who died earlier this year can use his frozen sperm to produce a child.

In a ruling released last week, Judge John Colangelo said the court would place no restrictions on how the parents could use the sperm, “including its potential use for procreative purposes.”

Peter Zhu, a U.S. Military Academy cadet from Concord, Calif., was fatally injured on Feb. 23 in a skiing accident on a slope on campus in West Point, N.Y. He was found unresponsive and taken to the hospital, where doctors determined the accident had fractured his spine and cut off oxygen to his brain. Zhu died four days later.

Doctors kept Zhu, who was an organ donor, on life support for two days while they made arrangements to transplant his vital organs. During that time, his parents hired an attorney who submitted a court request for postmortem sperm removal. “We are desperate to have a small piece of Peter that might live on and continue to spread the joy and happiness that Peter brought to all of our lives,” his parents said in a filing in state court in Westchester County. They argued that as the only male child of the family, their son was their only hope of carrying on the family lineage. The hospital was ready and willing to do the procedure but only with a court order.

Within hours, Colangelo directed the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., to retrieve the sperm and ordered it stored pending a court hearing in March.

Last week, Colangelo announced he found no restrictions in state or federal law that would prevent the parents from using their son’s sperm, especially since it seemed clear Zhu had intended to have children. Although he left no written instructions about the use of his genetic material for reproduction after his death, Zhu, according to his parents’ testimony during the hearing, had talked to them about his desire to have several children. His military adviser at West Point also testified that in mentoring sessions the cadet had said he wanted to be a father.

The judge said Zhu’s parents had not decided whether they would try to use assisted reproductive technology—likely an egg donor and a gestational surrogate—to conceive a child with their son’s sperm.

Last year, the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine concluded posthumous egg and sperm retrieval is ethically justifiable with previous written consent of the deceased. But without such authorization, the committee said doctors should only consider requests from the surviving spouse or sexual partner of the deceased. Requests from any other individuals, including parents—an instance the report called a “troubling situation”—should be declined. “In the case of a surviving parent, no joint reproductive effort can ever be said to have existed,” the committee said in a position paper. “Nor do the desires of the parents give them any ethical claim to their child’s gametes [sperm or oocyte].”

While some countries have moved to make posthumous reproduction illegal without explicit written consent of the deceased, courts in the United States have ruled on a case-by-case basis.

That is “worrisome on many levels as it highlights how unsettled the law is on matters of making life posthumously,” Jennifer Lahl, the founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture, told me. “Sadly, judges are ruling from the bench on hugely important matters never facing courts before and with little expertise. When they get these sorts of cases wrong, and there will be more, the rulings set a bad precedent.”

Lahl referenced a bill introduced earlier this year by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would allow service members to bank their eggs or sperm before deploying to a combat zone.

“This sort of policy will open the door for not only our wounded military, but those who may be killed while serving, to allow their parents or spouses to posthumously ‘make’ children,” Lahl said, adding that as a military mother herself, she sympathizes with Zhu’s parents’ loss of their son and any future grandchildren he may have given them. But, she concluded, “intentionally creating children, on purpose, who will never know their father, is only adding to the tragedy of their son’s death.”

Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin (file) Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin (file) Hacienda HealthCare in Phoenix

More to the story

The parents of an incapacitated woman who was raped and later gave birth at an Arizona long-term care facility filed a $45 million legal claim against the Arizona Department of Health Services last week. The claim cites a medical exam that found the 30-year-old woman suffered multiple sexual assaults and may have been impregnated before. It alleges the facility, Hacienda HealthCare in Phoenix, broke its promise to the parents to have only female caregivers tend to their daughter and missed 83 opportunities to determine she was pregnant. The facility reportedly ignored her missed menstrual periods, reduced her caloric intake in response to her weight gain, prescribed constipation medication for her distended stomach, and realized she was in labor only after a nurse saw the baby boy’s head. She delivered the boy on Dec. 29, 2018, while severely dehydrated and without any pain medication.

The birth triggered reviews by state agencies, the resignation of Hacienda’s chief executive, and the passage of a state law requiring the licensure of facilities like Hacienda.

Authorities in January arrested and charged a nurse at Hacienda, Nathan Sutherland, with sexual assault and abuse of a vulnerable adult after his DNA sample was a match to the baby. The claim alleges Sutherland provided unsupervised care for the victim more than 1,000 times, including more than 800 times overnight. Sutherland has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The claim seeks a $25 million settlement for the victim and $10 million for each of her parents within 60 days or the lawyers will take the case to court. —K.C.

Suicide rate among girls surges

The suicide rate among girls ages 10 to 14 is rising at nearly double the rate of boys the same age, according to a new study published this month. Although boys are still more likely to take their own lives, the gap is narrowing. The study, published May 17 in the journal JAMA Open Network, found suicides among girls in that age group rose by nearly 13 percent from 2007 to 2016 compared to just a 7 percent increase for boys the same age. The study did not attempt to explain the underlying reasons for the surge but stressed the urgent need for suicide prevention strategies that address the unique developmental needs of female youth.

Some experts argue social media may be partly to blame. Studies have found girls use social media more frequently and are more vulnerable to its isolating, anxiety-inducing effects.

The sharp increases in suicidal behavior among early adolescent girls may be a “canary in the coal mine,” wrote Joan Luby, a psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in a commendatory that accompanied the study. “These findings … suggest that the possible role of social media in the sharp increases in suicidality among early adolescent girls is an urgent public health issue that merits further investigation.” —K.C.

Associated Press/Photo by Timothy D. Easley (file) Associated Press/Photo by Timothy D. Easley (file) A protester in favor of same-sex marriage outside the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky.

Slight drop in same-sex marriage support

Support for same-sex marriage in the United States dropped 4 percentage points last year, according to new Gallup numbers, but it remains more than twice as high as when Gallup first polled Americans on the question in 1996. Data from Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs poll released this month found 63 percent of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, down from an all-time high of 67 percent in 2018.

The majority of every group segmented by Gallup—including political party, age, gender, and region—support same-sex marriage except for Republicans (44 percent) and adults ages 65 and older (47 percent).

More women (66 percent) approve of legal same-sex marriage than men (61 percent), and the highest support is among Democrats (79 percent) and Americans ages 18 to 29 (83 percent). —K.C.

Gillette takes (another) social stand

Gillette bowed to contemporary gender ideology last week with the release of a new ad depicting a dad showing his transgender teen how to shave. The ad features Canadian transgender activist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, a biological female who has undergone testosterone hormone therapy.

The company stirred up controversy earlier this year with an ad condemning bad behavior by men and boys, which many critics said amounted to disingenuous virtue signaling. —K.C.

Kiley Crossland

Kiley reports on marriage, family, and sexuality for WORLD Digital. Follow Kiley on Twitter @KileyCrossland.

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  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Fri, 05/31/2019 08:24 pm

    how about the baby born 20 years after being frozen? This is along those lines.

  • BostonSteve
    Posted: Sat, 06/01/2019 11:42 am

    One thing the first story, "Life after Death," highlights is the difference between Eastern and Western cultures.  While in Western Culture the individual and the nuclear family are given priority, in Eastern culture, the extended family, in particular the family line passed through the male heirs, is far more important than the individual, or even the nuclear family.

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Mon, 06/03/2019 09:07 am

    The verdict for Peter Zhu's parents is so troubling. No doubt Peter was the apple of their eyes but their hope of some kind of resurrection via reproductive tech is, I think, sadly ill-advised. And what if a girl is conceived?