Talitha Baker on the Complicated Legal Rights of Embryos as Infertility Grows in the World

Cells dividing in the early embryos two days after co-injection.
Credit: OHSU

What rights should an embryo have? It’s been a heavily debated topic for decades now. Historically, the question revolved around whether or not unborn babies should have legal protection from abortion.

Over the years fertility treatments have advanced, resulting in up to 1,000,000 embryos frozen in time. Today, the conversation becomes ever more complicated. Some people with a pro-life perspective believe that any fertilized zygote is a human life, deserving the chance at a full and healthy life. If you have this world view, the ever-growing bank of frozen embryos is likely concerning.

However, pro-life perspectives are actually diverse on this issue. For example, you may be pro-life, but believe that embryos should only be protected once they implant in the womb. Or, perhaps you don’t identify as pro-life. Even still, the legal issues concerning embryos are complicated and merit a thoughtful conversation.

Accidental destruction of embryos

In 2018, devastating news rocked the fertility industry. Over 4,000 frozen embryos and eggs were destroyed when a freezer failed due to human error at University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland. Shockingly, that same weekend, another 1,000 embryos and eggs were lost in San Francisco in an unrelated incident at Pacific Fertility Center.

First, the families impacted by this loss felt immense grief. Then, the topic shifted to who was liable for this devastating oversight? Unfortunately, American law is woefully under-equipped to bring justice to families when their fertility clinics are negligent. Part of the issue is that fertility technology advances so quickly that laws are unable to keep up for establishing regulation. Additionally, plaintiffs cannot pursue “wrongful death” claims because embryos are not currently recognized as “persons.” For now, when precious embryos are destroyed, there are very few options for legal recourse.

What happens to embryos when their parents divorce?

Although embryos may be trapped in time when frozen, the lives of the couples who conceived these embryos move forward—and sometimes they move towards divorce. What happens to embryos when one parent deeply desires to have the baby, while the other parent no longer consents?

In America, doctors focus most on increasing a couple’s odds of having a baby, so they maximize the number of embryos made during in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment, often resulting in a surplus of embryos. However, the more frozen embryos that are created, the more liabilities are created. Conversely, other countries have more regulation, reducing liabilities in the case of divorce. For example:

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Talitha Baker

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