Request to harvest eggs from dying woman raises questions about medical ethics

Two years after a dying woman's husband asked doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital to harvest his wife's eggs to allow for the creation of a posthumous child, the doctors explained their reasons for rejecting the ethically questionable procedure in an article published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine. The hope, according to a Boston Globe article, is to give physicians facing similar dilemmas in the future some sort of direction in ultimately making their decisions. 

Doctors like David Greer, who referred to the situation as "very uncomfortable," denied the husband's request after coming to the conclusion that performing such a procedure would be unnecessarily invasive, and determining that neither the woman, nor her husband even had a prior desire to become parents in the first place. 

The woman, who was 36 and whose name was not revealed, suffered a heart attack seven hours into an international flight, the NEJM article discloses, the result of blood clots in her lungs. After 10 days, doctors concluded that "irreversible brain damage" had occurred. 

Just hours after opting to end life support, however, family members--including the husband--requested that the woman's breathing tube be put back in after reading online articles theorizing that the woman's eggs could be removed and saved should the husband ever want to try to have a child.

"It's really important they're discussing this, because my guess is that very few doctors would think it's a reasonable request to take eggs out at that time," George Annas, a medical ethics specialist for the Boston University School of Public Health, told the Globe. "On the other hand, they would feel really uncomfortable telling a husband no just because they think it's wrong." 

Doctors also determined that just to be able to produce such eggs, they would have had to pump the woman full of synthetic hormones, a process that could have taken weeks, according to the Globe. What's more, afterward, in order to extract the eggs, doctors would have had to lay the woman flat on her back, putting her at risk for even more brain damage. 

For more information:
- check out the Boston Globe's piece
- here's the NEJM article (reg. required)