On Oct. 4, 1992, an 18-year-old dental assistant named Marion Ploch was driving to work near the German city of Erlangen. She lost control of her car and crashed into a tree. Local doctors spent four days trying to save her, but her fractured skull was too damaged.
While trying to revive Ploch, doctors discovered that she was 14 weeks pregnant. The fetus was not harmed in the wreck, and, though Ploch was declared brain-dead on Oct. 8, the doctors and Ploch’s parents decided to keep her body alive with machines to see if the baby could develop enough in its mother’s body to survive outside the womb. Five weeks later, however, Marion Ploch’s brain-dead body miscarried.
Fast forward 10 years. Israeli soldier Keivan Cohen was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002. He was single and left no will. At his parents’ request, a sperm sample was taken from his body and stored. When Cohen’s family attempted to use the sperm for in vitro fertilization, the hospital refused access, and the Cohens filed suit.
Flip forward five more years. Austinite Kathleen Smith and her husband, U.S. Army Lt. Brian D. Smith, have a beautiful 15-month-old boy named Benton. He’s the spitting image of his father who, sadly enough, has never met the boy. Brian was killed by a sniper in Habbaniya, Iraq, on July 2, 2004. When Benton was born, Brian had been dead for two years.
Kathleen and Brian had been trying in vitro fertilization, and they agreed that she should continue the procedure after Brian left for Iraq. Kathleen was about to start a new fertilization attempt when she learned of her husband’s death.
Brian’s parents initially opposed Kathleen continuing the process because they worried about her raising the child on her own and were disturbed by the fact that Brian had no say in the matter. Kathleen’s determination eventually won them over.
Back in Israel, Keivan Cohen’s parents won their lawsuit. They are now planning to hire a complete stranger as an incubator, to produce a baby using the five-year-old sperm taken from their son’s corpse to “rebirth” some facsimile of Keivan.
Texas widow Kathleen Smith and the parents of Marion Ploch and Keivan Cohen all lost their loved ones and simply wanted to save some part of those they’d lost. But just as it’s understandable, it’s also disturbing.
What’s Kathleen Smith going to tell Benton when he gets older? His “postmortem” conception introduces a strange addendum to the traditional “birds and bees” narrative. Boy does meet girl, boy and girl fall in love and get married, but boy dies before girl gets pregnant, and Mr. Stork shows up more than a year after Benton’s arrival would have been naturally possible. In Keivan’s case, boy will never even have met girl. And if Ploch’s baby had survived, girl would have met boy, boy would have gotten girl pregnant, girl would have died, and dead girl would have given birth to baby. Am I the only one who’s creeped out by this?
Thinking about how you were conceived is always uncomfortable, even when it’s natural. But when you introduce refrigeration processes, test tubes, inseminating syringes, court battles, and unnatural procreation, isn’t that getting morbid? And aren’t we lifting the lid of Pandora’s box just a little?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always had contempt for the folks who stand around at funerals and talk about death as “God’s will.” I think that’s a crock, and obviously folks like the Plochs, the Cohens, and Kathleen Smith agree.
But when does all of this become ill-conceived Prometheanism?
The aims of these families were not ignoble, but neither were those of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. I am not suggesting in vitro fertilization or even postmortem conception is inherently monstrous, but somewhere the mad doc has to be smiling. And the lives resulting from such practices may experience a painful “otherness” that most of us would never wish on the ones we loved.
There are practical implications, too – will Benton be eligible for his father’s military death benefits? Should some limits be set on how long some guy’s sperm can be kept on ice before it’s thawed out to create an instant, no fuss-no muss descendant? Or on who can be impregnated with it?
The Cohens’ lawyer, Irit Rosenblum, has called postmortem conception a “human revolution.” Isn’t it more than that? Won’t it permit do-overs, re-runs, after-the facts, and Boys from Brazil-type stuff, tempting humans to reach for immortality in all the wrong ways?
And back to young Benton: Will he enjoy being the poster child for postmortem conception? I’m afraid he’s going to have a much tougher time of it than Garp.
E. R. Bills is a local freelance writer.