news

Real life after death: 18 months after Simon died, he became a father.

Gracie

Just twelve hours after losing her husband Simon, to leukemia, Michelle Gordyn went into labour.

At the time, she was seven months pregnant with her first child and sadly, the little boy she named Charlie only survived three days before he lost his battle as well.

Understandably, Michelle says that that week was devastating.

“It was a good thing that Simon passed first because he went knowing that he was a father, I was having our child and that was one of the things that was really important to him,” Michelle told reporter Liz Hayes in a recent segment on Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes program.

But despite Charlie’s and Simon’s death, it wasn’t the end of the road for Michelle and Simon’s family plans.

Using an embryo and sperm they’d preserved when Charlie was originally conceived via IVF, Michelle was able to fall pregnant again. And 18 months after Simon died, she gave birth to his daughter, a little girl named Gracie.

Michelle with Gracie

Gracie is now a healthy one-year-old who, according to mum, takes after the dad she’ll never know.

“Her particular mannerisms sometimes are very much her father. A particular eye roll. Or the way she lifts her brow,” Michelle said. “It’s a comforting thing. It really is a comforting thing. She’s not just mine, she’s ours.”

Michelle’s story featured last night on 60 Minutes, in a segment called ‘Life After Death,’ which followed women who have used their deceased partner’s sperm to have children.

In recent years, advancements in science have made it possible for doctors to extract sperm from men, if it’s done within 36 hours of their deaths. But those advancements have also raised ethical questions about whether it’s morally okay to take a man’s sperm – especially when the request comes without the man’s written consent.

For Michelle Gordyn, consent wasn’t too much a problem. As detailed in this feature article from The Australian Magazine, Michelle’s major hurdle came when she had to obtain approval from Victoria’s Patient Review Panel before she could go ahead and get pregnant:

ADVERTISEMENT
Although she had Simon’s written consent to use the embryos and sperm they’d preserved she was required under new Victorian legislation to secure approval from the state’s Patient Review Panel. Her passionate plea describes how squarely they discussed the problems of single parenthood, with Simon pointing out the relatives and friends who would help her. She wrote: “This small group of people, as Simon said, ‘have become our family’ … not only would they be there to help out when I am sleep-deprived, run to the shops should the baby need something, give me advice, be a listening ear, they would also keep Simon alive with their memories of him. I want a child that is made with both my DNA and that of my husband. I want this, Simon wanted this.”

Michelle told Liz Hayes that by having Simon’s child she was simply “carrying on about the life that we had planned together”. But for Brisbane woman Amy Van den Brink, carrying on with the life she had planned with her fiance Ben is proving to be more difficult.

Amy was 25 when Ben passed away suddenly from pneumonia. And it was just hours after Ben had died – in the midst of Amy’s grief – that someone suggested Amy save some of Ben’s sperm.

This from 60 Minutes:

Amy and Ben

LIZ HAYES: She still grieves for her fiancé, who died after suffering a bout of pneumonia. But her dreams of a family with Ben didn’t die with him. In the midst of this shock, the idea was put to you that you should try and retrieve some of Ben’s sperm?

AMY: I didn’t have to think about it. Someone’s – out of everything that was going on that day, someone said to me, “Here. Here’s a glimmer of hope, here’s – you could still have your family, you know. There’s still a part of Ben alive, there’s a possibility.”

LIZ HAYES: I imagine a lot of us might say, “I can’t think about this right now.”

AMY: Yeah, definitely, which is why it had to be broken down in, “Do you ever want to have Ben’s child or not?” That’s… it had to be broken and completely emotionless and black and white, because if you don’t jump at that opportunity, that opportunity no longer exists. It’s not something you can go, “I wish I had.”

LIZ HAYES: It was a race against time. Amid the shock of unexpectedly losing the love of her life, Amy had just 36 hours to retrieve Ben’s sperm for it to remain viable. But first there was a legal hurdle. In an unprecedented case in Queensland, Amy had to convince a Supreme Court judge that she was entitled to Ben’s sperm, which was complicated by the fact that he had never put his wishes in writing or even discussed the possibility with Amy.

Amy

Ben’s sperm was extracted after a court order was issued, and it now sits in a fertility clinic in Brisbane.

Amy wants to have children using Ben’s sperm. But despite the fact that the pair had planned to get married and children one day, Amy now needs a second court order to actually be able to use the sperm.  And that’s where the story becomes even more difficult and where the ethical issues arise.

Dr Ben Kroon – the man who was called in to extract Amy’s fiance’s sperm – said he is still not sure that what he’s doing is the right thing.

“I remember vividly walking up and down the corridors inside the morgue, waiting for this court order, and thinking, ‘What’s the court order going to say? Is it really true that I’m allowed to take this sperm? Is it really legal’?” he said.

Here’s more from the story in The Australian:

Dr Ben Kroon

The grey area of a deceased man’s intent causes particular concern. “Without explicit consent, it may be unclear whether the deceased man would have wanted to father a child that he himself would not be able to raise … Given the personal stake that the surviving partner has in the matter, the partner’s strong conviction that this is what the deceased would have wanted should not be seen as enough.” The fact that a couple was undergoing IVF should not be construed as proof of a man’s intentions, the paper argued, given that some male patients decline permission for their partner to implant stored embryos in the event of death.

Kroon wrestles with these questions. He supports a grieving partner’s right to collect sperm so she can use it if the circumstances are right, but he remains uncomfortable with using sperm posthumously unless this wish has been clearly expressed and documented.

When I ask what he would wish for himself, he prevaricates. “Personally, it is a difficult question,” he muses. “I’d probably say no, because I think life goes on for people. After a partner dies, many people go on and have a healthy, satisfying life with another partner. While it may seem like the be-all and end-all when you’re a grieving woman petitioning for her dead partner’s sperm, that desire may dissipate over one, two, five years and you might find as time goes on you don’t have that immense urge.”

Judgement from other people is something both Michelle and Amy deal with on an ongoing basis. But both agree they they’re doing the right thing and not holding their lives back in any way. For Michelle and Amy, giving birth to their partner’s children allows them carry on with life.

Indeed, as Amy told Liz Hayes: “This is about having Ben’s child, because that was my intention from the start. Just because circumstances occurred and Ben had passed away, my fairy tale still lives on. My Prince Charming is no longer here, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t have the children and the family that I want.”

So what do you think? Should a woman be allowed to take sperm from her deceased partner without his written consent? Do you think that doing so would hold her back from getting on with life? Or do you think people should be able to go forth with their life plans – no matter what happens?

And what about if the situation was reversed? Do you think a man should have the rights to his deceased partner’s embroyos should the situation present itself?

00:00 / ???