More than four years ago, Liat Malka waited anxiously for a sperm sample from a deceased man she had never met to fertilize her solitary egg in a hospital petri dish. The Israeli kindergarten teacher hoped to undergo in vitro fertilization and was disappointed when, in the first attempt, her egg and the donor sperm failed to create a viable embryo. The next month, though, brought success. Malka had the embryo transferred into her uterus and nine months later gave birth to Shira, whose name was chosen because it means both “song” and “prayer” in Hebrew.
Sometimes, Shira looks at a picture of her father. In a two-bedroom apartment in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon that she shares with her mother and grandmother, Shira has grown up seeing this man smiling back at her with a wide grin and kind, bespectacled eyes. When she was younger, she called him by his first name, Baruch. Recently, Malka has been trying to get her to call him Daddy. “Look how nicely he smiles. That’s Daddy,” says Malka, gently, as they stand in front of the photo.
Over the past two decades, posthumous reproduction has occurred throughout the world in modest but growing numbers. In this version of assisted reproduction, men donate their genetic material in life, or have it extracted after death, so that they may continue their genetic lineage. Experts predict that the number of these procedures is likely to increase as reproductive technology gains prevalence and as “alternative families,” composed of combinations beyond the traditional heterosexual, two-parent setup gradually gain acceptance. Israel, an exceptionally pro-natalist country with the highest usage of IVF per capita, is a thriving laboratory for this novel way of family-making.