Should soldiers being sent into war zones be officially encouraged to deposit their sperm?
by Tony Allen-Mills
It started as an improbable military trend among British and American troops worried about becoming infertile if they handled toxic weapons in Iraq. Yet for Kathleen Smith, the widow of a US army second lieutenant, the vogue for storing soldiers’ sperm has turned into a life-creating force.
More than two years after her husband Brian was killed by a sniper as he inspected his tank treads in Habbaniya, Iraq, Smith gave birth to his son. She has since become the leading voice of a small but poignant group of American war widows who turned to artificial insemination to keep their dreams of having children alive.
Visitors to Smith’s home in Austin, Texas, are invariably impressed by how much her son Benton — now aged 15 months — resembles her late husband. Benton was conceived by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) using sperm that Brian had deposited before his departure for Baghdad in January 2004…
“I’ve had some lousy luck in my life,” Smith, 42, told an interviewer. “But Benton has worked out. He is wonderful.”
Smith’s experience has sparked a moral and ethical debate in America, where the Pentagon has not yet resolved awkward questions about whether children such as Benton are eligible for military benefits. There are known to be at least four children conceived after their fathers died in Iraq; officials believe that there may be other mothers who have preferred not to come forward.
Smith has also supplied a sympathetic human face to a worldwide debate that had previously seemed mawkishly theoretical — should soldiers being sent into war zones be officially encouraged to deposit their sperm?
The issue first arose in 2003 amid reports that a number of British and American soldiers had become infertile after fighting in the first Gulf war in 1991. The prospect of a coalition return to Iraq — in search of the chemical and biological weapons that President George W Bush insisted that Saddam Hussein was hiding — prompted hundreds of soldiers to visit sperm banks on both sides of the Atlantic.
In America, one leading sperm bank offered military personnel a discount on sperm storage. At the time there were numerous media reports about Gulf war veterans who had returned from Kuwait in the 1990s and subsequently fathered children with physical deformities or serious health problems.
The issue has also become prominent in Israel, where one recent survey found that 85% of Israelis supported the creation of an official sperm bank for soldiers in combat units.
Fears that Saddam’s Iraq was a toxic swamp quickly evaporated. But for a few military families there were other reasons for storing sperm that would later help to turn grief into joy.
Maria Sutherland was trying to have a baby with her husband Stephen, a US army staff sergeant, long before he received his orders for Iraq. After six years together the couple had just begun IVF treatment when Sutherland, 33, left for Baghdad in August 2005. He deposited sperm so that his wife could continue the treatments in his absence.
Sutherland was killed a few months later when his armoured vehicle rolled over on patrol in western Iraq. Within weeks of his death Maria, now 38, determined to continue the IVF treatments, which she said was what her husband had wanted. “He said, ‘If I don’t come back, I want you to be able to go through with this’,” she said.
The fertility clinic warned Sutherland that she should wait at least a year to recover from her grief and be absolutely sure that she wanted to raise a child on her own. She never wavered. A year later she became pregnant and her son, Stephen Sutherland II, was born in June this year.
Smith had also been trying to get pregnant before her husband was sent to Iraq. Smith was 37 at the time and was worried that she would soon be too old to conceive. The couple had been trying IVF for 18 months without success and agreed that Kathleen should continue with stored sperm while Brian was in Iraq. They never considered what might happen if he was killed.
Kathleen was about to start a new IVF attempt when her doorbell rang on July 2, 2004. It was the moment every army wife dreads. A military chaplain stood on her doorstep with news of her husband’s death.
Like Sutherland, Smith decided almost immediately that she wanted to keep trying to get pregnant. But in this case Brian Smith’s family was initially opposed. Linda, the soldier’s mother, was worried about Kathleen raising a child on her own and was equally concerned that Brian could have no say in an issue that the family had never discussed. Kathleen’s obvious determination to have Brian’s child eventually won Linda over.
Several US psychologists and other childcare specialists have warned that widows embarking on postmortem conception may not fully appreciate the pressures that both they and their children will face.
While gaining a child may seem like an obvious relief after losing a husband, any widowed single mother faces enormous challenges. “And what happens when she meets someone else?” wondered one Washington specialist.
For Smith, Benton’s happy toddler existence more than justifies her decision to go ahead. She is thrilled that she managed to have a child with the man she still refers to as “the love of my life”.
Yet she acknowledges that every time she looks at her child, she feels a pang for the husband she lost. “This is the baby we would have had together,” she said. “But his dad won’t see the miracle he helped to produce.”
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