A landmark decision to allow the use of the deceased’s sperm

In the recent Qld decision of Re Cresswell [2018] QSC 142, Justice Brown made orders allowing Ms Cresswell to use her deceased former partner, Mr Davies’ sperm and undergo IVF treatment.

Ms Cresswell and the deceased Mr Davies had enjoyed a relationship for approximately three years when Mr Davies, without any apparent warning signs or any obvious trigger, took his own life on 23 August 2016.

An urgent application was heard the next day by the Supreme Court. In that application an order was made by Burns J that the testes and spermatozoa (“sperm”) of Mr Davies be removed and provided to an IVF clinic nominated by Ms Cresswell for storage, pending a further application to this Court for its use. The procedure was successful.

In the current application before the Court, Ms Creswell sought declarations that she was entitled to the possession and use of the sperm retrieved for the purpose of assisted reproduction.

The question for the Court to decide was whether Ms Cresswell had a right to possession of sperm, removed after his death. In making this application, Ms Cresswell notably had the support of her family and Mr Davies’ family, in particular his father and his mother.

There were four issues to be determined by the Court:

  1. Was the original taking of the sperm lawful?
  2. Was the sperm that had been removed, property and capable of being possessed?
  3. Whether Ms Cresswell had an entitlement to possession and use of the sperm?
  4. If she does have such an entitlement, how is it affected by discretionary factors which must be considered in determining whether a declaration be made in her favour?

1. Was the original taking of the sperm lawful?

The Transplantation and Anatomy Act 1979 provides a statutory regime for the removal of tissue (including sperm) from a deceased person. It makes it an offence to remove tissue from the body of a deceased person unless conditions such as the consent of the senior available next of kin, and removal for medical or scientific purposes. As the death was a “reportable death” it was a requirement of the Act that the consent of the Coroner be obtained, before the sperm was removed. This had not been done. However, the act also provided that the offence of removing tissue does not comply to an act authorised by law.

Her honour concluded that the removal of sperm for reproductive treatment is a “medical purpose.” The consent of the senior available next of kin in this case would have been satisfied and the removal was done pursuant to an order of the court and so was authorised by law.

The original taking of the sperm was lawful.

2. Was the sperm that have been removed, was property and capable of being possessed?

There is a long established principle that there can be no property in a human body. However, there are two exceptions to this rule:

  1. The personal representatives have a right to custody for the purpose of disposing of the body (i.e. Burial or cremation); and
  2. In Doodeward v Spence (1908) 6 CLR 406, the High Court held that a body, or parts removed from a body may become the subject of property rights where “work or skill” is applied. Her honour concluded that “the present state of law in Australia” is that rights of property can exist in a sample of sperm from a deceased person “based on the application of Doodeward to the circumstances.

3. Was the sperm that have been removed, was property and capable of being possessed?

Her Honour concluded that the removal, separation and preservation of Mr Davies’ sperm had involved “work and skill,” therefore it was considered property. The laboratory staff in carrying out the work had acted as agents for Ms Cresswell.  Therefore her honour was satisfied that Ms Cresswell had a primie facie entitlement to permanent possession of the sperm.

4. The discretionary factors

Before determining whether the Court should exercise its discretion, a number of factors were considered including the following:

  1. Whether the sperm could be lawfully used in assisted reproduction;
  2. The consent or wishes of the deceased;
  3. The best interest of any child that may be conceived;
  4. Community standards; and
  5. Whether Ms Cresswell’s desire to use the sperm to conceive was an emotional response to grief.

Justice Brown made the declarations sought by Ms Cresswell that she was entitled to the possession and use of the sperm or the purpose of assisted reproduction.

Turner Freeman Lawyers can help in emergency situations like this

The Wills and Estates Department at Turner Freeman Lawyers practices exclusively in all areas of Wills and Estates Law and can assist you with making this type of application to the Court.

As there is normally a 24 to 48 hour window for the initial application to be made to ensure that the sperm is still viable, it is vital that you seek legal advice as soon as possible.

In an emergency situation like this, please phone our Wills & Estates Senior Associate Jenna Hutchinson on (07) 3025 9059 or 0405 331 954.