In the hours after their partner’s passing, newly widowed women are hit with all sorts of questions. Many of which they don’t have the headspace for. Having to assemble answers in your most vulnerable state is almost unthinkable, but there are important boxes that need to be ticked.
And now, there may be another question to raise.
With the spurring of new fertility technologies, there’s an onslaught of pathways to parenting that once only lingered in daydreams. The practice of posthumous parenting is evidence, as it’s become increasingly commonplace in recent years. That doesn’t shield it from the expected scrutiny concerning its legal, ethical and moral issues. Grey areas run rampant when it comes to assisted reproductive technologies, and this one definitely isn’t an exception.
What is posthumous parenting?
Posthumous parenting, otherwise known as posthumous reproduction, describes when fertility technology such as IVF is used to initiate pregnancy with the genetic material of a deceased parent. The retrieval needs to happen very soon after death, or at a time when death is close at hand.
The first successful pregnancy using sperm retrieved post-mortem was reported in 1998 and led to a happy and healthy baby. But it’s only recently that it’s become a more attainable (and reliable) option for families.
What does the law think?
The legality of this practice is pretty scattered across the globe (as you’d imagine), and this uncertainty extends to Aussie states.
So far, Queensland and the ACT are the most open to it. The ACT has no laws regulating assisted reproductive treatment procedures, and Queensland gives it the thumbs up if there’s no reason to believe the deceased person would’ve been opposed to it.
Western Australia currently allows the collection of posthumous gametes, but the gametes cannot be used in the state. There have been stories of women from Perth applying to take their dead partner’s sperm to the ACT to undergo treatment.
In Victoria and New South Wales, the law allows both the collection and use of the gametes, as long as the treatment is carried out on the deceased person’s partner, there’s written consent from the deceased person, and the person about to undergo the procedure has received counselling.
What are the concerns?
So what makes it ethically tricky? The most common objection is rooted in the wishes of the deceased partner. Many are okay with the procedure as long as there’s written consent. But, if you’re not expecting to die, what are the chances that’s going to happen?
For some, the rights of the unborn child who’s being brought into the world “fatherless,” has also been raised as a red flag. But that’s largely a symptom of discomfort around any unconventional family structures. It’s fairly commonplace for single mums to use IVF, and there’s not much difference here.
The other suspected impact on the child is that they’ll be a “living monument,” bearing the burden of being born from loss. Although, that’s not a new experience and many kids are already born from deceased parents. So far, studies on kids born from posthumous reproduction show that most meet the milestones of happy and healthy little ones.
In places where posthumous reproduction can happen, there are guidelines around giving adequate time for grieving and counselling. It draws on concerns that the decision for posthumous parenting is a big deal that needs to be heavily considered, not in the spur of the moment. Interestingly, following most posthumous sperm retrieval cases, the spouse won’t go through with it. Once time moves on, and the grief feels a little less heavy, they could change their mind. But, at least they had the option.
So that leaves us with the moral duty to the dead, and the need to respect what that person would’ve wanted. The sanctity of how we care for the deceased and their body is embedded into the fabric of most societies, marked by burial practices across centuries. That’s what makes critics reckon that even if someone wanted to be a parent, they might not have wanted to be a posthumous parent. Implied consent apparently doesn’t make the cut.
What are the benefits?
In 2021, Australian model Ellidy Pullin gave birth to her daughter Minnie, 15 months after her partner died.
She’d been dating world champion snowboarder Alex ‘Chumpy’ Pullin for eight years, and they’d started trying to have a baby. But one morning, when Ellidy was in their Gold Coast home, Chumpy was in a diving accident and tragically passed away. In the thick of her grief, she was confronted with the question of sperm retrieval. She said it was like getting a chance to bring a piece of him back. Six months later, she fell pregnant with Chumpy’s child. Nine months later, little Minnie was born.
“I’m so sure of what I’ve done and I’m so proud and happy that I’ve done it,” Ellidy said to ABC News.
This is just one of several stories where widowed women were able to find comfort and hope after loss. Posthumous parenting gives them a shot at growing goodness in the grief.
If we follow the ‘respect-for-wishes’ model in society, which allows for the fulfillment of a person’s wishes once they’re no longer able to meet them, the practice of posthumous parenting is absolutely ethical. Here, we should be able to assume that unless there’s evidence of objection from the deceased person, we should listen to their loved ones on what they would’ve wanted. After all, who knows them better?
The chance for someone to leave tangible pieces of themselves in the world shouldn’t be overlooked, nor undervalued. It’s the very thing that leads many families to pursue posthumous reproduction. A way to continue someone beyond their morality, beyond just their time here.
So, is posthumous parenting ethical?
You’ve probably realised that there’s a lot to consider here.
No matter the stance, it’s agreed across the board that posthumous parenting is not a decision to make lightly. There should be deep consideration, guidance and support from therapy to make sure that it’s the right choice for grieving women.
With all that in mind, is the practice ethical? Maybe it comes down to two things: compassion and autonomy.
Just as we have a right to live, we have a right to grieve. Whatever that looks like. If that means bringing a child into the world, one with your partner’s eyes and funny laugh, is that such a bad thing? Giving grief a channel for new life feels like a worthy paradox.
And when there isn’t any harm that can be done to the deceased parent, there’s not much reason for the law to intervene.
Trust should be placed in the loved ones of the dead, those who knew and loved them inside and out. And if a child does come from that, it’s far more likely that they’ll feel born out of undying love, rather than a burden of loss.
For women like Ellidy Pullin, posthumous parenting takes away the full stop to their partner’s story. It’s a way to keep that love going.