Recapturing the Dream: Can family partnering help after disappointment or tragedy?

 “Family partnering” can be defined as the creation of a family bond between two unrelated family cohorts, one side providing gametes or embryos to another wishing to become parents. This celebratory blend of biology and parenting allows both sides to play different but mutually beneficial roles in a new kind of child-centered extended family.  Unlike co-parenting where the partnerships are generally equal in regard to parental rights and responsibilities, family partnering endows parental rights to only one side of the partnership. And while the details of such arrangements might sound totally new, the concept and the motivation moving it to realization are not.  Polynesian cultures (and others) have practiced the tradition of hanai for millennia, recognizing that children are a gift that can be shared.  Hanai is often simply defined as “adoption” but those close to the Hawaiian culture will tell you it is really an act of love, expressed not only to the child involved, but among the adults presenting and receiving a child in an elegant circle of on-going affection.hands pic

As noted in my previous two articles, family partnering, or high tech hanai, exists in fact as serendipitous occurrences via third party reproduction and adoption, or anecdotally as relationships that were built through heroic effort by the parties involved.  The big question is whether or not this is an ideal that might work as a viable, more purposeful strategy driven by people with an intense interest in experiencing the family’s next generation – but for whom responsible parenting must be found outside the family circle.  Conversely, how many potential parents, many without a ready-made extended family network, might enter more confidently into parenthood knowing they are not alone? How many potential parents simply like the idea of having their child connected to both sides of a caring family?

Now is a good time to find out. As one who studies the question, I can see that the technological advances, legal precedents, and the increasing openness of adoptive parents, donors and society in general already make intentional family partnering highly feasible. Meanwhile, the electronic ability to seek and find partners that complement each other has never been greater and excellent strides have been made in identifying the components of durable co-partnering matches plus the ethics and science that must always be in place when thinking outside the box about children and their families (Hope, 2014). 

  Unfortunately, none of these variables have been integrated and packaged for the marketplace (in terms of family partnering per se) where potential family partners can explore and discover whether or not this is the answer they have been seeking.   

I suggest that partnered parenting professionals extend their outreach and make services available to provide advice and perspective to the people who will want to know more about family partnering. One way to do this is to expand the offerings on co-parenting websites to include family partnering, its definition, how it can work in practical terms while providing some specifics on how both sides of the partnership can benefit. Although the business model for family partnering might not be exactly the same as it is for co-parenting services, it is likely to be similar enough to allow for a relatively informed launch. Some partnered parenting professionals have already begun to work with the idea of concierge services, an element of assistance that could be very applicable to family partnering (Jacobs, 2013).

 In my first article for this magazine (Wharton, 2013), I referred to the case of the parents who partnered with a young woman to give birth to the child of their deceased son using his banked sperm.  This couple now has a much-loved granddaughter while the child’s mother has been able to realize her goal of single motherhood. Everyone involved among these three generations has gained a much bigger extended family for high quality family participation and support. Given the increasing frequency of gamete storage prior to cancer treatment, military service and other fertility hazards, we can only guess how many spouses, mothers, fathers and siblings are left with the question, and the hope, of family renewal after a family tragedy. Add to this the technological feasibility of retrieving and storing gametes after the sudden and unexpected death of a young person and it is easy to see how the family partnering concept – i.e. donating postmortem gametes or embryos to intended parents wanting to stay connected to the donors’ extended family – could provide the strategic feasibility that has been largely missing from the biological reality of inheriting or obtaining cryopreserved eggs, sperm or embryos of loved ones.  By some estimates, as many as 1,000 postmortem gamete retrievals are done every year in the U.S. Fewer than 1 in 500 are ever utilized, according to the Sperm and Embryo Bank of New Jersey (James, 2010).  No doubt, this new and unique opportunity for any type of postmortem reproduction is difficult to act upon because of the informational vacuum on how to make it work from a practical standpoint, especially when actual parenting will be a difficult fit for survivors.

 Appropriately enough, the biggest barrier appears to be a well-placed concern about doing right by the resulting child, a concern that is greatly diminished if thoughtfully considered family partnering becomes important to the objective. A significant constraint on many is of course the cost of implementing almost any strategy involving reproductive technology, something that can be more accurately assessed if aligned with a detailed plan.

Many cryobanks are now fully aware that there will be varying degrees of interest in stored sperm, eggs and embryos by grieving relatives if the owner of these materials should die before they are used. Directives on use in case of death are now considered (or should be considered) a part of the process of storage. A study of 364 men who banked sperm for various reasons found that 85.9% of them provided consent for postmortem reproduction should it be desired by survivors (Pastuszak et al., 2013).  This statistic offers some essential insight for those who might ponder the question under far less organized circumstances.

 Despite its feasibility, gamete retrieval after death is often fraught with legal hurdles when no anticipation of death was present, perhaps resulting in a double tragedy for relatives who see the solace and hope in gamete retrieval being denied in the name of hastily determined policies and laws to “protect” the deceased. No such problems exist when family members are the single voice for the deceased regarding organ donation – and there is already precedent for citing The Universal Anatomical Gift Act of 2006 as the basis for retrieving sperm of a deceased young man at the request of his parents (Gholipur, 2013).

I have yet to see this proposed, but one possible way around some of the critics and legal hurdles to posthumous reproduction (in the frequent absence of signed consent or biological wills) would be for survivors to have the immediate legal right to designate a living surrogate, temporary or otherwise.  The legal precedent here lies in sperm and egg donation which separates genetic parents from “intended” parents thereby conferring all the rights and liabilities of parenthood to someone else, as most likely would be the case if family partnering were to be the next step anyway.  Not only would this remove the criticism that posthumous reproduction sanctions the production of “orphans,” but would do away with the legal debate about whether or not such children should be eligible for survivor benefits under Social Security, the military, and/or contested estates as this relates to posthumous heirs that suddenly appear without documented pre-arrangement.  This still leaves the question of whether or not the “donation” of gametes by the deceased would be contrary to his or her wishes, but in the absence of documented evidence of explicit opposition, one might rely more frequently on property law that confers possession rights (and surrogate designation rights) to the next-of-kin – or rely on the Anatomical Gift Act as noted above. Altogether, there are more calls to set better guidelines on who and when requests for postmortem gamete retrieval can be honored, giving serious consideration to close relatives who should have a right to make these kinds of decisions without interference from strangers insensitive to the life-changing consolation hanging in the balance (see Gholipur, 2013; Lipschultz and Smith, 2013).

Today, the expectation, even admonishment, to accept what fate delivers need not always apply. Postmortem reproduction is a genuine, blessed miracle for those who have the opportunity and responsible strategy to pursue it.  Although nothing else is as novel and dramatic in all of human family history as postmortem reproduction, there are other circumstances that beg for similar miracles, potentially made possible by family partnering. What about the family whose only child has a health issue or disability that does not exclude gamete production but does exclude any reasonable chance of parenting?  Today, with PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis), even genetic disease does not necessarily exclude the possibility of responsible procreation if a family partnering strategy is in place. 

And finally, routine disappointments that nevertheless lead to profound sadness might also kindle some additional creative thinking about family partnering. How about an individual’s current or anticipated regrets about children and family?  Similarly, future grandchildren are a central focus of many aging parents, something that will never be realized when the adult children determine that parenthood does not fit into their life plans.  Given the rapid acceptance of unconventional family structures, the time might be coming when the family partnering alternative will be something that parents can think to suggest – and their children will be open to considering.   It is obvious why no one should take on decades of parenting just to please someone else, but a short commitment to directed gamete donation might not seem so unreasonable to the modern individual unburdened by the one-size-fits-all notion of family, moreover inspired by the spirit of hanai where love multiplied is the reason.


Gholipour, Bahar. 2013. Making babies after death: It’s possible but is it ethical? LiveScience, June 11.

Hope, Rachel. 2014.  Family by Choice – Platonic Partnered Parenting. In press.

Jacobs, Emma. 2013.  Matchmaker, make me a child. Financial Times: Sept 27.

James, Susan Donaldson. 2010. Sperm retrieval: Mother creates life after death. CBS News: Feb 23.

Pastuszak, A. W., Lai, W. S., Hsieh, T.C. and Lipshultz, L. I. (2013), Posthumous sperm utilization in men presenting for sperm banking: an analysis of patient choice. Andrology, 1: 251–255. doi: 10.1111/j.2047-2927.2012.00027.x

Smith, R.P. and L.I. Lipschultz.  2013. A call for institutional policies on postmortem sperm retrieval 
Fertility and Sterility,  100  (3) , pp. 656-657.

Wharton, Dan. 2013. A look at how third-party reproduction can create new kinds of extended families. Partnered Parenting Magazine: Sept 19.

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