A joy that is conceived in the midst of tragic illness

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The Independent Online
AFTER YEARS of waiting and hoping, "Ruth" cannot believe she has an 11-month-old daughter. The child she and her husband wanted so much smiles happily, oblivious that she was conceived two years after her father's death.

In 1992, Ruth's 30-year-old husband was diagnosed withtesticular cancer. They decided to freeze some of his sperm so they could have children when he recovered. After months of chemotherapy and an operation to remove the growth, the cancer returned, and he died in July 1995.

Ruth still wanted to have the children they had hoped for. She was refused help by one hospital but doctors at another clinic agreed to assist after she underwent extensive counselling.

Last August, three years after her husband's death, she gave birth.

Ruth, who lives in a village in the North, close to both her and her late husband's families, is proud of her daughter but is undecided about what to do with her five "back-up" embryos still in storage.

"I could not feel happier; I adore her and now feel totally complete," she said.

A survey by The Independent found that last year there were at least six newborns who had been conceived years after their fathers' deaths.

Fifty of the UK's 101 fertility clinics were interviewed. Of these, nearly one in three - 15 clinics - had assisted women with posthumous conception. There had been 24 cases where women had received sperm from spouses who were dead, resulting in at least six births.

The clinics reported they were being approached by increasing numbers of womenwanting to use their dead husbands' sperm.

"If the woman has been counselled, has family support and can prove the child will be well looked after, we will help them conceive their late husband's child," said Dr George Ndukwe, the clinical director at Nuture, based at the Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham.The clinic has treated two such women in the past year.

It is becoming increasingly routine for men who are undergoing cancer treatment, kidney transplants or vasectomies to store sperm before surgery or treatment in case their fertility is damaged. "People's awareness of what can be done to preserve male fertility has increased," said Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of St Bartholomew's Fertility Unit and The Bridge Centre, both in London.

He said about 10 per cent of the men with sperm in storage had died and so there weremore women wishing to use dead partners' sperm.

Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 it is illegal to take a man's sperm without his consent, but once consent has been given, the Act does not govern under what circumstances a widow is allowed to use the sperm. It is up to individual clinics to decide how they will proceed.

Peter Brinsden, medical director of Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, has treated six such cases in the past two years. "We have a well-tried, ethical system. We counsel the women and if they want to have their late husband's child, we recommend that they get over their grieving period - at least a year - before we help them. The large majority do not come back after a year."

Research conducted in the United States shows that a widow who has had a "cooling-off" period of at least a year is indeed much less likely to want to conceive her late husband's child.

"It is a difficult decision, because having a child straight after the death of the father means that questions don't get asked," said Simon Fishel, medical director of the Centre for Assisted Reproduction Ltd, in Nottingham. "The female partner's grief is also somehow normalised in that she has a child growing inside her. It can help mourning."

Men who store their sperm, fearing that medical treatment might make them infertile, have to complete Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority consent forms for its storage and use.

Doctors can take the sperm, posthumously, if there is written consent in a letter or as part of a will.

This is done using a technique called electroejaculation. An instrument that looks similar to a cattle prod is inserted into the dead man's rectum. An electric shock then causes anejaculation.

It can also be collected surgically by removing some tissue from the man's testicles.

Many people are unaware that it is necessary to have written consent prior to such a procedure and an increasing number are asking doctors to take sperm from husbands or sons who have just just died.

"We have tragic inquiries from patients whose partner has just died who want us to go and take a sample," said Ceinwen Gearon, IVF Laboratory director of the Reproductive and Endocrinology Unit, at the Lister Hospital in London. "Unfortunately, unless the deceased person has specified at some point in time that they want this to occur we can't take it."

Diane Blood fought a long legal battle over the issue of consent to have a child by her dead husband, Stephen, who died of meningitis in February 1995.

She persuaded doctors in Sheffield to remove sperm from her husband when he was on a life-support machine, but because he had not given his written consent, she was not allowed to use it in Britain.

A ruling under European law allowed her to use the sperm.

She went to Belgium for treatment and gave birth to aboy, Liam, last December.

"Ruth's" name has been changed to protect her identity