Because the United Kingdom is suffering from a shortage of sperm donors it has been proposed that men be allowed to donate their sperm after they are dead. As with other post-death donations, the donated material would be extracted and used. This does raise some ethical issues.
It must be noted that the donation process is voluntary—the sperm is not simply harvested without consent. As such, the main moral issue is whether such a donation is morally acceptable. The specific act of donating sperm post death falls under two broader moral areas. The first is the ethics of donating any bodily component post death. If such donations were morally unacceptable, then it would obviously follow that sperm donation would also be unacceptable. While the general ethics of post-death donations is beyond the scope of this work, it seems reasonable to accept that there is nothing morally problematic about post-death donations in general. This does not, of course, establish that post-death sperm donation is acceptable. The second is the ethics of sperm donation in general. If this is morally wrong, then post-death sperm donation would be morally wrong as well. While some might take issue with sperm donation in generally, it does not seem morally problematic—but this matter is beyond the scope of this work. At this point let it be assumed that the ethics of post-death sperm donation is not settled by the general ethics of post-death donation nor by the general ethics of sperm donation. But let is also be assumed that there is not a moral problem with either post-death donation or sperm donation.
The distinction between post-death sperm donation and general post-death donation is that what is being donated is sperm; but the ethics of this falls under the more general ethical topic of sperm donation. Thus, the moral concern specific to post-death sperm donation is, of course, that it occurs post-death. As such, this is the one factor that would distinguish post-death sperm donation from normal sperm donation. So, the question is what, if any, moral difference is made by the donor being dead before their donation.
While there might be a bit of an “icky” factor to the post-death aspect, the “argument from icky” does not have much moral weight unless the “ick” can be spelled out in terms relevant to the moral status of the action. There are certainly numerous other considerations that are morally relevant, and I will focus on these.
One moral concern is the treatment of the dead. While the dead person is presumably beyond caring, there is the possible impact on family and friends when they learn of the procedure. There is also the concern about treating the dead with respect and one might argue that extracting sperm would be disrespectful. It could be argued that the procedure is no more (or less) disrespectful than those used to harvest other body components from a donor. There is also the fact that the person consented to the procedure; if they were not deceived or misled about the procedure, the consent of an adult overrides the concerns of their family and addresses the issue of respect. If those doing the extraction are acting in accord with the donor’s consent and do not do anything beyond that consent, they would be acting in a respectful manner in terms of the person’s wishes.
There is certainly a concern that is also pragmatic: in some cases the cause of death is linked to a person’s genes and there is the concern about what impact using such sperm would have. This can be addressed by providing prospective recipients with the relevant information so they can make an informed choice. Obviously, simply doling out donated sperm randomly or blindly would be problematic, but that is another matter.
One often raised worry is that children resulting from such donated sperm will technically have lost a parent before they are even conceived. They will never be able to meet their biological father. While this might seem like an odd situation, it is analogous to cases in which the father dies before the child is born. While this is not a common occurrence, it does happen. Wars, for example, claim many fathers before their children are born. While the loss of a father they never met is certainly not trivial, children are able to go on and have full lives. In the case of the typical donor, there is likely to be far less emotional impact, since the donor would have no established connection to the mother. There is also the fact that a living sperm donor could die before his children decide to seek him out and there is the possibility that neither children nor donor will ever want to meet. As such, there seems to be no special moral problem with post-death donation in this regard.
Another concern is that while a donated organ might grant life, donated sperm can create a new person. Part of the worry is that the spouse or partner of the dead man might be harmed by this is some manner. While this is a matter of concern, the same problem arises with living sperm donors. Also, if the spouse or partner is worried about this, they need to address this with the man while he is still alive. If he wants to remain a donor, he might anger or upset his partner or spouse—and this could of moral concern depending on the extent to which a spouse or partner should have control over the other spouse or partner. But this is obviously not unique to post-death sperm donation; the man chooses to donate his sperm in both types of donations. So, the ethics of a married man deciding to donate sperm remains the same whether the donation occurs when he is alive or dead.
Based on the above, if the man consented, there is no specific moral problem with post-death sperm donation. So, if sperm donation and post-death body component donation are acceptable, post-death sperm donation is as well.