Topic: Science & Technology

Replacement Children, Idle Ethicists, and the Nikolas Evans Saga

A Texas mother, Missy Evans, had her 21-year-old son’s sperm collected after he was killed in a fist fight. Her plan is to find a surrogate mother, and to create a grandchild. She says she is only doing what her son would have wanted. “He would love me so much for doing this," news reports have quoted her as saying.

Yet according to those same news reports, ethicists have expressed “concerns.” They say that the procedure raises “troubling issues.” I have a question for them.

What’s wrong with it?

When she was told by the doctors that her son was dead, Missy Evans decided to harvest his sperm. “He wanted to have children,” Evans told local reporters. “And someone took that away from him." She discussed the idea with family members, who unanimously supported letting a part of Nikolas live on through his future offspring. A county probate judge ordered the Medical Examiner's Office to keep her son's body chilled to at least 39.2 degrees and to allow an expert to take the specimen.

Once the story hit the newswires and the internet, bioethicists began questioning the family’s actions, plans and motives. Several called the future offspring “a replacement child,” as if the phrase itself was a self-explanatory argument. There is nothing inherently unethical about parents choosing to have another child after a child dies prematurely. If they subsequently abuse the child emotionally by refusing to allow him or her to be a unique individual, that is another issue. But having a child after one dies? This is well established in culture, practice and logic. There would be nothing unethical that I can define even if parents were to clone the cells of a deceased child. I think it would be macabre, and I doubt that I would choose to do it if the technology existed, but again: what’s wrong with it? That it’s unnatural? That it’s strange? That it reminds some people of “The Monkey’s Paw”? Strange is not unethical. Unnatural isn’t unethical.

Using a mystical mummified monkey’s paw to bring back the dead…all right, I’ll give you that.

Significantly, none of the ethicists who were asked what was unethical about Nikolas Evans’ mother’s plan could articulate anything persuasive. Mark Vopat, for example, who is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio, questioned whether the court should have granted the mother's request, arguing that while Nikolas Evans may have told his mother he wanted children someday, it was wrong to assume he also would have wanted to father a child posthumously if he died prematurely.

That’s a reach! Ethicists see nothing wrong with a parent giving the OK for a dead child’s liver, heart or lungs to be transplanted into a stranger without the child’s advance consent, but Professor Evans objects to the harvesting of a dead child’s sperm to create new life because Nikolas didn’t specify that his desire for offspring wouldn’t expire when he did. How many twenty-year olds tell their parents, “Oh…if I happen to die in an accident, it’s all right to harvest my organs”? Which is the more extreme intrusion, harvesting sperm, or harvesting a heart?

Then there is Tom Mayo, director of Southern Methodist University's Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, whose ethical objection centers on the psyche of the child to be. "That child's biological father will be dead,” he told MSNBC. “The mother may be an egg donor, anonymous or gestational surrogate. This is a tough way for a kid to come into the world. As the details emerge and the child learns more about their origins, I just wonder what the impact will be on a replacement child."

You just keep wondering, Tom. My son was an orphan, which is a far tougher way to come into the world, but I am 100% sure that he prefers that to not coming into the world at all. I’m equally sure that Nikolas Evans, Jr. will feel the same way. Life is a pretty special gift, even when it comes from a dead father and a grieving grand-mother.

With so many ethical problems in the world, ethicists shouldn’t work so hard at finding ethical controversies where none exist.

And yes, I need to read that sentence a few times myself.


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