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Postmortem Sperm Retrieval Is Turning Dead Men Into Fathers

In Israel, parents of slain soldiers are pushing for their right to be future grandparents. Critics call it planned orphanhood.

The Memorial Day gathering in Kiryat Shmona, like countless others across Israel in early May, begins in the morning at the local military cemetery. Everyone stands in silence as a siren blasts for two minutes. Wreaths are laid, speeches are made, and tears are shed.

Later, about 20 people, young and old, sit around the table in the main room of a public housing apartment in this city near the Lebanese border. They help themselves to pasta, shawarma, cakes, and coffee, and they remember German Rozhkov.

Rozhkov, a Ukrainian immigrant turned soldier, was killed 20 years ago, when he was 25. According to Israeli military authorities and press accounts, he tried to stop two gunmen shooting at motorists at the height of the second Palestinian uprising. Disguised in Israeli army uniforms, the shooters penetrated from Lebanon and opened fire on a main road. Rozhkov, passing by, engaged them in a 30-minute battle. Five Israeli civilians and Rozhkov were slain before the gunmen were killed, too. (The Palestinian Authority hasn’t publicly challenged this account and didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

The paraphernalia from Rozhkov’s service forms a shrine in the apartment. His M16 rifle is framed on a wall with pictures of him wearing his green beret. On a desk sit military medals and trophies. Many of the mourners—now leafing through photos, gently mocking their younger selves—knew Rozhkov. They served with him and were his neighbors. His mother, Ludmila, a former teacher in Crimea who lives alone in the apartment, tells the group that their presence is comforting. “An apartment should be filled with children and light,” she says in heavily Russian-accented Hebrew. “Thank you for bringing them.”

One of the children darting among the mourners—sitting on laps and nodding shyly—is 5-year-old Veronica. She never met Rozhkov, of course, but she’s his daughter. Thirty hours after he was killed, his sperm was extracted, preserved in liquid nitrogen, and, 14 years later, used to fertilize the eggs of Irena Akselrod. She didn’t know Rozhkov, but she volunteered to bear and raise his child after meeting Ludmila. “I was moved by her story,” Akselrod says. “She’s alone in Israel, she lost her only son, and had no grandchild.”

Persuading a judge to grant Ludmila Rozhkov and Akselrod the right to German’s sperm included testimony about his desire for children. But there was no case law covering when a dead man’s sperm could be used to produce offspring. In his ruling, the family court judge wrote: “When the law doesn’t provide an answer, the court must turn to the principles of Jewish heritage. ‘Give me children, or I shall die,’ our mother Rachel cried out. This logic reflects man’s desire to continue through his offspring the physical and spiritual existence of himself, his family, and people. We are told, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ ”

When she gave birth to Veronica, the Russian-born Akselrod was 42 and divorced with a teenage son. She doesn’t consider herself German’s widow, only the mother of his child. But she makes a point of honouring him, taking her daughter to the monument the city recently constructed in his memory. She and Veronica, who starts first grade in September, live in public housing near Ludmila Rozhkov. When Akselrod is at her factory job, Rozhkov picks up Veronica from school. One room in her apartment is filled with toys. At the front door, there’s a crayon drawing by Veronica of a smiling man, woman, and child. She labelled it in Hebrew: “Daddy, Mommy, and Veronica.”

Being an active grandmother is something Rozhkov feared she’d never get to experience on that day in March 2002 when officers came to visit her with the unbearable news. When she saw them, she blocked the door in an attempt to avoid hearing the truth. Later, in grief, she shouted out in Russian, “We must get his sperm!” No one, including those who spoke Russian, knew what she was talking about.

Rozhkov isn’t sure herself where the thought came from. The procedure had never been done in the Israeli military. But German’s best friend, who was with her, contacted the army. The call was taken by Yaffa Mor, the chief casualty officer of German’s brigade, whose job is to help families of the dead and wounded. “It sounded bizarre and honestly insane,” says Mor, now a civilian.

It turned out, though, that the procedure existed. After a man dies, his sperm cells live up to 72 hours and can be retrieved with an incision to the testicle, then frozen. “We checked with legal and medical authorities and went ahead,” Mor says. “Today it is becoming routine.”

“If you don’t have a child and want to leave one, we can give that to your wife or parents”

“Routine” may overstate it. There are a few dozen children like Veronica. But the military practice of postmortem sperm retrieval is now a familiar topic in Israel, even if it’s extremely rare elsewhere. A couple of dozen army families are eager to replicate the experience. Many more beyond the military are interested, too, including the loved ones of victims of disease, accidents, and terrorist attacks.

Initially, government guidelines and court decisions leaned toward giving parents of dead soldiers access to the procedure. The assumption was that having kids is everyone’s natural goal. But complications arose.

In one case, parents wanted to use their son’s sperm, but his widow, after initially agreeing, remarried and had kids with her new husband. She blocked the parents from doing anything with the sperm, arguing that the dead man wouldn’t have wanted a child with anyone but her. The Supreme Court sided with the widow in 2017. Justice Esther Hayut wrote, “Unfortunately I could not find a legal way to approve the use of the deceased’s sperm without the consent of the person who was his wife at the time of his death.” Without legislation, she said, the court’s hands were tied. As a result, it’s now harder to get approval.

In March a preliminary version of legislation that would regulate the practice in the military passed the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The bill’s sponsor, Zvi Hauser, a member of the right-leaning New Hope party, says he believes that once Israel legislates the practice, other countries will follow. His bill requires asking every male military conscript what he’d like done with his sperm if he dies in uniform. “If you cannot stay in this world and must leave it at age 19 or 20, one compensation you can have is to leave someone here, a human being,” Hauser says. “We may eventually expand this to the rest of society, but we are starting with the military, because we take people 18 to 21 and we say: ‘You have to serve your country by law. If something happens to you, we take good care of you, and if you die, we take good care of your parents and children. We now have the technology so that if you don’t have a child and want to leave one, we can give that to your wife or parents.’ ”

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