The wild frontier of reproductive technology has just got wilder. Last week, for the first time, sperm taken from a dead man resulted in a human birth. Meanwhile, an Italian IVF specialist claims to have produced four babies using sperm grown in the testes of rodents.
Gaby Vernoff, whose husband Bruce died from a reaction to a prescription medicine in 1995, gave birth last week to a baby girl in a Los Angeles hospital.
About 30 hours after Bruce Vernoff's death, Cappy Rothman of Century City Hospital in Los Angeles extracted sperm from the body at the family's request. Rothman has supervised this procedure more than a dozen times. "Retrieving something from their loved one gives families in grief some hope," he says. The Vernoffs were the first to use the sperm for fertilisation, however. Single thawed sperm were injected into Gaby Vernoff's eggs. After one unsuccessful attempt, she become pregnant last year (This Week, 18 July 1998, p 5).
British law requires written consent from a man for his sperm to be used after his death. But there is no such requirement in the US, leading to concerns that sperm could be "stolen" from a man who had no intention of reproducing.
This has inspired a bill placed before the New York state legislature by Roy Goodman, a Republican state senator. It requires prior written consent for a man's sperm to be retrieved after death. The request must come from a wife or partner. But the bill has languished in committee for more than a year. "Nothing has focused people's attention on the issue," says Kathy Lenhart, Goodman's executive assistant. The Vernoff birth may provide that focus.
Gaby Vernoff did not have her husband's written consent to take his sperm after his death. However, Rothman says she does have a video in which her husband expressed his desire to have children.