IVF was in the news again recently. In Belgium, a woman gave birth to a healthy child after she had an ovarian tissue transplant. She had undergone chemotherapy as a teenager which affected her fertility but she had the ovarian tissue removed and frozen before the chemo began.

First, congratulations to her! I can’t even imagine what a long journey she’s been on to get there. I was amazed and so happy to hear about this. Second, what great foresight this was from her medical staff. She was only in her teens, but they had her long term well-being in their minds and, with her, they planned for the future.

It’s not always that such a caring and far sighted approach is taken to future fertility. There certainly wasn’t the same consideration given in the past, and there weren’t the same options available now either. A friend of mine who is now in his 50s underwent chemotherapy in the mid-80s. He wasn’t given the option of freezing sperm prior to chemo and he didn’t even think about it. Years later, he and his partner wanted to have a child but that wasn’t an option. She told me that she loves him so deeply, she was willing to make the sacrifice of knowing they would never have children together. She also told me that she didn’t realise at the time what a big sacrifice it was.

I started to do a bit of research after thinking about this – could medical technology have preserved my friend’s fertility, or was that option even available in the 1980s?

Turns out that, although we tend to think of artificial insemination as a modern technology, it has a history dating back to 1779. I’ve been reading about it and believe me, it’s fascinating! Worth a blog post, in fact! The first babies were conceived with donor sperm in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, but sperm wasn’t frozen until the mid-50s, and the first sperm bank for frozen sperm opened in 1977 in the US.

So it could have been an option for my friend to freeze sperm, but it doesn’t seem like it would be something that was routinely offered as part of cancer treatment in the 80s.
These days, it’s a different story. When my husband needed chemo, his specialist discussed fertility and the possibility of freezing sperm, and we decided to do it.

That got me thinking about another situation. A close friend of mine experienced a recent tragedy where she lost her partner and the father of her new baby. They had wanted to continue to grow their family together, and one among the many, many things she was sad about was that she hadn’t been offered, or asked, if there was a possibility of saving some of his sperm so she could try for another child through IVF.

I guess this situation doesn’t come up very often, because I couldn’t find much information about it. Experts seem to agree that there’s a 24 hour window after death where it is possible to harvest sperm, and that it could even work up to 36 hours after death.

It’s a really controversial topic, particularly in cases where the dead partner hasn’t been able to state their wishes. I read that in Israel, soldiers get the chance to save sperm before going into battle, in case the unthinkable happens. In Australia, you need an urgent court order to take sperm posthumously. There have been a few cases in Australia where bereaved women have made that urgent request, and the court has allowed it.

Were we live, in New Zealand, I don’t think my friend could have done that. The only information I could find on the internet was the fifteen year old “Guidelines for the Storage, Use, and Disposal of Sperm from a Deceased Man (February 2000)” Prepared by the National Ethics Committee on Assisted Human Reproduction (NECAHR). All that document had to say was that although it was technically possible to retrieve sperm from a comatose man or within 24 hours of death, advice on this aspect had not yet been requested.

The document then went on to say that:

The Committee considers that collection of sperm from a comatose or recently deceased person without that person’s prior written consent is ethically unacceptable.

It’s a pretty hard thing to think about. The idea of taking tissue from your loved partner who was so recently warm and alive beside you seems painfully crass and terrible. But when it could give you a chance at having a tiny piece of them still living on with you to cherish? New reproductive technology is giving us some wonderful, and some challenging choices.

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