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Beth Warren

Last week you might have read about Beth Warren whose husband died 2 years ago from a brain tumour. Before he died a sample of his semen was put in storage. [This is sometimes done when patients are undergoing chemotherapy which might affect their future fertility]. He gave consent that if he should die his sperm could be used by his wife for up to 2 years after his death. Beth Warren is challenging the storage time limit imposed on the sperm by the UK’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

Mrs Warren said she has not had enough time to make decisions and wants the time scale to be extended.

Her lawyer argued that Mrs Warren was not yet “emotionally, physically or practically” ready to conceive, and her husband’s intention was to ensure his sperm could be used by his wife after he died. The 2 year time limit had been not properly discussed with him and he signed whatever he had been given.

The HFEA argues it has “no discretion to extend the storage period beyond that to which her husband gave written consent”.

Jane Collier, the lawyer representing the organistation, said officials sympathised with Mrs Warren, but added that Mr Brewer had not given written consent to his sperm being stored beyond April 2015.

In the mid-1990s, Diane Blood, a 47-year-old writer won the right to use her late husband’s sperm to try for a child they had planned together before his sudden death from meningitis. In that case although the couple had been undergoing fertility treatment the husband had not given consent for his sperm to be taken while he lay in a coma and used in this way. Many regarded the extraction as an act of assault. [Diane Blood was not allowed to use the sperm in this country and had to seek fertility treatment in another].

This case can be looked at from the point of view of all concerned [narrative ethics] bearing in mind the four pillars of medical ethics.

The Point of view of the deceased husband

These cases were discussed very largely in terms of consent. Thus some argued that written consent was required for the posthumous use of sperm in fertility treatment. In the Diane Blood case no such consent had been given. In the Beth Warren case consent had been only given for 2 years. Both women claimed that their husbands intended that they should have the right to use their sperm indefinitely. Is an unwitnessed conversation good enough however? Does it constitute valid consent? Diane Blood’s husband intended to have children with her, thinking that he would be alive to have an active part in their upbringing. He developed meningitis suddenly and quickly went into a coma and could not have forseen the circumstances. In the Beth Warren case consent was only given for 2 years. It was claimed that informed consent did not take place if it had he would have given consent for his sperm to be used indefinitely.

The point of view of the child

Some argue that if treatment was not allowed the child would not exist and so treatment will be of definite benefit to the unborn child. Others point out that the child born will be at a disadvantage as it will not have a living father.

Fathers are important in the lives of children. Much criticism has been levelled at working mothers and society view mothers as the most important adult in a child’s life. But research actually shows that a lack of involvement of fathers in the lives of their sons seems to disadvantage them to a greater extent and often leads to anti social behaviour and low achievement. Self esteem in girls seems to relate to how their fathers treat them.

The right of a child to know their parents when possible.We know that adopted children often have a strong desire to know where they came from.This of course can not always be possible for every child but most would agree that deliberate creation of a child should try to ensure the child’s best chance of emotional security and happiness.

The point of view of the mother

The mother wants the child. In some way it might help with the grieving process. Others argue that it prevents the mother from fully acknowledging her loss and moving on. It may make it harder for her to make a new relationship with another man and having children with him.

Some question that the interests of single women are truly promoted by the production of a child which leaves them with the sole task of bringing up the child. Whatever her desire to have a child, a single woman is faced with a difficult task in bringing up a child alone. If the father is not present at any stage – not even during pregnancy itself – the woman is deprived of an irreplaceable source of support. However single women are allowed to use sperm donors to conceive – they have autonomy in this matter. Is this any different?
A woman who has been recently bereaved and still grieving may be unable to make an objective judgement of the effect of single parenthood on her and on the child.

Society’s point of view

Is it is wrong to use a dead or unconscious person as a source of genetic material for the generation of a child?

How children are born and brought up has enormous significance for society. Some people point out that single parents are much more likely to need state aid. To what extent does society value the 2 parent family? Society may understand that parents may die or get divorced but is it completely willing that children are knowingly created to be brought up by one parent?  Children are not possessions of their parents; if we give the right to create children to women are they more likely to regard them as possessions?

One thing is for sure –new reproductive technologies such as IVF have led to many  beginning of life ethical issues.