Ana and Michael Clark were newlyweds on a motorcycle ride in California when tragedy struck: Their bike flew off a cliff, killing Michael and leaving Ana with shoulder and spine fractures. Grieving for her lost husband, Ana was also upset about the children they would never have, so she shipped his body to a San Diego hospital and had some sperm extracted. "Just for me," she tells Mosaic Science. "My very own little piece of my Mike." Ana's story is just one example of a rare but growing practice—retrieving semen from dead men—that seems to exist in a moral and legal gray zone. "There are no specific rules," says Martin Bastuba, the doctor who extracted semen from Michael Clark. "Most of the laws on the books were written before this technology really existed."
US federal law says next of kin can decide about a dead man's organs unless he made prior directives, but court rulings have granted sperm special status because it creates life. The upshot? Sperm-extraction policy varies by hospital, with a 2013 review in Fertility and Sterility finding 60% of contacted hospitals had no policy at all; some US fertility clinics only allow it if the person asking is the wife or committed partner. The procedure itself, of harvesting sperm from testes, has become slightly more common since its invention in the 1970s (the nation's biggest sperm bank performs about nine annually, up from 18 throughout the 1980s and 1990s). The surprise is that wives rarely use the harvested sperm. "Like so many things in life, it’s not the actual. It’s the perception," says Bastuba. "This longing to try to keep a piece of someone who was so important. That to me is the true value." (Read more sperm stories.)