Peter Zhu, a West Point cadet who accidentally died, always wanted to be a father. His dream was to live on a ranch, where he would have horses and raise five children, never mind his parents’ jokes about how much all of that would cost.

Now, thanks to a court order, his parents can hope that some part of that dream may still come true.

Mr. Zhu, 21, was found lying in the snow on a ski slope at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Feb. 23 after an accident left him with a severely fractured spine. He was taken to Westchester Medical Center, where he was declared brain-dead on Feb. 27. But because he was an organ donor, his body was kept alive until March 1.

In the two days between the death of his brain and the death of his body, Mr. Zhu’s grief-stricken parents — desperate to hold on to a piece of him and determined to pass their family name to the next generation — petitioned a state court to allow them to retrieve his sperm before his organs were removed.

“Peter was the kindest, most loving and caring young man that you could ever meet,” his parents, Yongmin and Monica Zhu, said last week in a filing in State Supreme Court in Westchester County. “In addition to retrieving Peter’s organs to donate to others in need, we are seeking to retrieve sperm from Peter’s body in order to preserve Peter’s reproductive genetic material.”

“Without obtaining sperm from Peter’s body, we will never be able to help Peter realize this dream of bringing a child into the world,” they added. “This is our one and only chance of fulfilling Peter’s wishes and preserving his incredible legacy.”

His sperm would have to be retrieved before his organs were removed, his parents ordered, and the removal procedure was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. Friday. They filed their petition to the court at 9:38 a.m. that day.

“Our son’s dying wish was to become a father and to bring children into this world,” his parents, who flew to New York from their home in California to be with him, said in the court filing. “Our family has been torn apart this week by the loss of our precious son. We now beg the court not to further devastate our family by eliminating the possibility of preserving some piece of our child that might live on.”

The judge, Justice John P. Colangelo, quickly granted their request. At 11:34 a.m. Friday, he directed the medical center to collect Mr. Zhu’s sperm and to provide it “to a sperm bank or similar facility of Petitioners’ choosing for storage until further Order of this Court regarding disposition of such sperm.” He also scheduled a court hearing on March 21. Efforts to contact Mr. Zhu’s parents and representatives for Westchester Medical Center on Monday were unsuccessful, but in court documents the Zhu family said doctors at the hospital had been “extremely kind and understanding of our situation.” They said, however, that the doctors were “hesitant” to retrieve their son’s sperm without a court order “because the hospital has never conducted a procedure like this before under these circumstances.” In his ruling, the judge said the hospital had not objected to the order.

 “While we are extremely proud of the successful and landmark efforts made so far on behalf of our clients, the case remains pending, necessitating our discretion,” said the lawyer for the family, Kathleen Copps DiPaolo. “As you would expect, it is a very bittersweet result for the family and, out of respect for their privacy, we cannot discuss further at this time.” Efforts to reach the public affairs office at West Point were unsuccessful, but officials from the academy informed to Army Times, a newspaper that serves the armed forces.

“Peter was one of the top cadets in the Class of 2019, very well known and a friend to all,” Brig. Gen. Steve Gilland, commandant of cadets, told the paper. “He embodied the ideals of the Corps of Cadets and its motto of Duty, Honor, Country, and all who knew Peter will miss him.” Army Times reported as well that Peter was the president of the Cadet Medical Society and planned to attend medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences for medical school. It said the circumstances of his death would be investigated.

In addition to their grief, Mr. and Mrs. Zhu told to the court that they wanted to retrieve their son’s sperm for “deeply personal cultural reasons as well.” Their son was the only male born into his generation of the Zhu family, largely because the Chinese government’s one-child policy had kept Mr. Zhu’s brothers from having more children after their daughters were born, the family said in court documents. According to Chinese culture, only Peter could have transmitted the family name to the next generation. Without his sperm, the family name would die. “When Peter was born, his grandfather cried tears of joy that a son was born to carry on our family’s name,” the Zhus said in their filing. “Peter took this role very seriously, and fully intended to carry on our family’s lineage through children of his own.”


Photo: Associated Press

Based on The New York Times


Expert opinion

When family members, based on the deceased’s own wishes and previous family discussions on this sensitive issue, refer to the fact that it is in the interest of the deceased and in the interest of the family as a whole to extract the sperm after the patient’s death and save it for later use for reproductive purposes, are the judges in favor of the applicants, and are doctors obligated to comply with such  orders?

Getting sperm after death or persistent vegetative state is not a necessary procedure either from a medical or a legal point of view. And although in the case described, obtaining sperm is ethically justified, and the judge behaved himself to the highest degree mercifully, fairly and professionally, the doctor who is instructed to extract sperm is not obliged to agree to do so. Moreover, the principle of a conscious objection will be fully applicable. A physician who deliberately opposes such extraction of biomaterial may refuse to conduct it, regardless of a court order.

The above circumstances increase the likelihood that the extraction of sperm after death of a person in the absence of his explicit prior consent may be ethically justified, at least in some cases, based on several considerations. The main consideration is a reasonable assumption that a man would agree to sperm extraction. If we assume this assumption, then two additional factors may support the decision to fulfill the prescription. First, if the close relatives of the deceased later declare their intention to provide them with the saved sperm of their son to fertilize the donor egg and give birth to his biological children, then this request can be satisfied in accordance with the principle of free reproduction. Secondly, it is obvious that the fulfillment of such a request for sperm can provide emotional support to a family that mourns the death of a loved one. These considerations confirm the rule that in some cases the court from a legal point of view has the right to make a satisfactory decision, and the doctor from a medical point of view may allow the prescription to be fulfilled.

Konstantin Svitnev,

Expert of the European Society of Embryology and Human Reproduction

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