Embryologists inundated with requests for sperm retrieval from the fallen and dead

Wives and parents of young men killed since Saturday seek posthumous procedure in bid to preserve legacy of loved ones — but for some, it is too late

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative -- In this May 15, 2018, photo, a scientist picks up a vial containing frozen donor sperm samples in a lab in Melbourne, Australia. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Illustrative -- In this May 15, 2018, photo, a scientist picks up a vial containing frozen donor sperm samples in a lab in Melbourne, Australia. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

As the scale of the tragedy from the Hamas onslaught on Saturday became clear, with hundreds of young men — both soldiers and civilians — among those killed, embryologists and IVF specialists report being called to quickly try to perform posthumous sperm retrieval (PSR) on an unprecedented scale.

Family members want their loved one’s sperm extracted and frozen in hopes that a child can be conceived from it in the future and for their genetic legacy to live on.

PSR, optimally performed within 24 hours of death, must be done by family court order in the case of an unmarried man. In the case of a married man, a wife can request sperm retrieval and sign the necessary paperwork.

IVF specialists usually extract sperm from healthy men to help them conceive a child with their partner, or from ill men who want to freeze their sperm before undergoing medical treatment.

In speaking with an online publication for the Israeli medical community, Dr. Yael Harir, an embryologist at Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, said that she usually does only a couple of PSR procedures a year. Although she declined to give the specific number of procedures done at Kaplan in the last few days, Harir indicated that it was sizable.

“When you have to do this procedure on corpses, the staff finds it difficult physically and emotionally,” she said.

Harir reported being contacted by colleagues at other hospitals asking for guidance on how to do PSR. “There is no protocol for coping with the preservation of sperm in such a large scope. We had to figure out how to cope with the situation and assess what equipment we had to do so many procedures in parallel,” she said.

But for many, it was too late.

Filmmaker Shaylee Atary had hoped that sperm could be retrieved from her husband Yahav Winner, who was murdered by Hamas terrorists when they invaded Kfar Aza on Saturday morning. Winner’s corpse was not found or identified quickly enough for viable sperm to be retrieved.

Shaylee Atary and her late husband Yahav Winner in an undated photo (Go2Films)

In speaking with Hebrew media, Atary blamed the delay on cumbersome bureaucracy and on the system for identifying bodies being completely overwhelmed. She claimed she was even asked to pay $1,500 for the posthumous procedure on her husband, who was also a filmmaker.

When Winner’s sperm was eventually retrieved, it turned out that his body’s having been left out in the heat for so long made it unusable.

“The state abandoned my husband’s body,” Atary said.

It was a devastating blow for Atary, who gave birth to a daughter not long ago. She and her husband had planned to have more children.

“My Yahav’s dream was to have a large family, laughing and joyful, playing on the lawns of our magical Kfar Aza. I will not be able to fulfill that,” she said.

A photo of Asher and Irit Shahar with their son Omri taken before Omri’s death in June 2012. (Courtesy)

PSR burst into the public consciousness with cases like that of Irit and Asher Shahar, whose son Omri, a captain in the Israeli Navy on active duty, was killed in a June 2012 car crash at the age of 25.

The Shahars immediately thought to have Omri’s sperm retrieved. A family court approved the procedure, which has been legal in Israel since 2003 for later insemination or IVF by a surviving female partner.

The Shahars sought to use their son’s sperm to create a grandchild that they would raise, although they were both already in their 50s. They planned to purchase an egg and have a surrogate carry the baby.

In a September 2016 precedent-setting ruling, the Petah Tikvah Family Court allowed the couple to go ahead with their plan. However, the state prepared an appeal linked to the unusual circumstance of the Shahars’ desire to be, in effect, both grandparents and parents to Omri’s offspring. In the meantime, the court issued an injunction preventing Irit and Asher from accessing and using Omer’s stored gametes.

The Shahars suffered an ultimate setback in January 2017, when the state won its appeal in Lod District Court.

There have, however, been cases since 2007 where the parents of fallen soldiers have been allowed to donate their son’s sperm to a woman wanting to become a mother either through insemination or surrogacy. In these cases, the women are raising the children that resulted from the sperm donations.

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