The parents of a West Point cadet who died after a skiing accident earlier this year can take control of his sperm and, if they wish, use it to pursue a pregnancy using an egg donor and surrogate, a New York judge has ruled.

The judge, state Supreme Court Justice John Colangelo, in March ordered that a hospital retrieve the sperm from 21-year-old Peter Zhu before he was taken off life support, following a request from his parents. Colangelo said his decision then was based on recovering the sperm while it was still viable, but that he needed more time to address how it could ultimately be used.

The case revived discussion around postmortem sperm retrieval, also called posthumous sperm procurement, which is typically done when a young man dies unexpectedly. Some ethicists and urologists say it should only be carried out in cases in which there is prior written consent from the man or if the man’s partner or spouse appeals for the procedure. Some experts are reluctant to grant such requests from parents, in part because parents do not typically make decisions about their children’s reproductive plans.

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In their petition to the court, Zhu’s parents, Yongmin and Monica Zhu of Concord, Calif., said Peter had made clear he wanted to have children and that they were trying to fulfill his wishes. They also said that because of China’s one-child policy, Peter was the only male in his generation, so it was up to him to “carry on our family’s lineage.”

Peter, a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, severely injured his spinal cord while skiing on Feb. 23 and was declared brain dead on Feb. 27. Before the procedure to remove his organs for donation on March 1, his parents received an order from Colangelo for the medical center where he was being cared for to collect his sperm. Staff at Westchester Medical Center didn’t object to the procedure, and the sperm has been stored at a sperm bank since the retrieval.

In his decision, dated May 16, Colangelo wrote that he focused on “the decedent’s intent.” He found that Peter had repeatedly expressed a desire to have children to his parents, professors, and mentors.

“Devotion to family, revealed in various ways, direct and subtle, was evident throughout Peter’s young life,” Colangelo wrote.

Peter did not have a will or a partner, but Colangelo wrote that Peter’s statements and public health and estate laws “point to his parents as the persons Peter would have intended to make decisions with respect to the preservation and disposition of the procreative fluids at issue.”

Experts who have studied postmortem sperm retrieval said that many families who save sperm do not ultimately try to start a pregnancy. According to court records, the Zhus testified at a March hearing that they did not know if they would ever use Peter’s sperm and had not yet tried finding an egg donor, a surrogate, or a doctor who would perform the procedure.

In his decision, Colangelo pointed out that if the Zhus sought to start a pregnancy with Peter’s sperm, they would face such challenges as finding a doctor willing to perform IVF in this case. The judge also noted that some states won’t recognize a child’s parentage if he or she is born too long after a parent’s death.

“And,” Colangelo wrote, “this is not to mention the challenges and responsibilities necessarily entailed in caring for and raising a child. The aforementioned considerations may well weigh into any decision [the Zhus] may make regarding the ultimate disposition of Peter’s sperm.”

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  • Your comments perfectly expressed how I feel about this issue, and I have 3 children about the same ages as the young man in question. They would not want children brought into this world with their genetic material because that isn’t what becoming a parent means.

  • Dr. Maier’s commentary is perfect, raises all the applicable concerns. It most certainly is not easy, but Peter Zhu’s parents need to accept that with Peter’s untimely passing so also does their son’s capacity of fatherhood. As he has no say whatsoever in any suggested procreation details, all the wrong decisions that he might not have wanted himself could be made. This young lad should be left in peace. It would his loss much less complicated for the parents too.

  • I think (as an fertility MD, for what that’s worth) that this sets a bad precedent for parents being able to do this in other cases. He wanted to have children; that presumably meant he wanted to have them with a partner and raise them. Would he have wanted the mother to be either a surrogate (using her eggs and uterus) or a combination of an egg donor and a gestational carrier (the latter carries the pregnancy but is not genetically related) and then likely not be part of the child’s future? Also, would he want his parents to be the ones who would (presumably) be raising “his” child at an age when they would actually be the grandparents? Just because he wanted to have children doesn’t mean he would have wanted the latter scenario.
    Besides the leap of faith in thinking he would have wanted to have a child conceived after he was dead, it’s distressing that there’s no mention of how a child who was born from this would be able to handle how she or he came to be; the only concern is how difficult it might be for the parents/grandparents to get this to happen.

    • Your comments perfectly expressed how I feel about this issue, and I have 3 children about the same ages as the young man in question. They would not want children brought into this world with their genetic material because that isn’t what becoming a parent means.

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