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'What is this, "The Handmaid's Tale"?' Exploring moral questions posed by controversial IVF ruling

Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Is a frozen embryo a child?

The Alabama Supreme Court says yes. In ruling this month that three couples who lost frozen embryos in a storage facility accident could sue for wrongful death of a minor child, the court wrote that the "natural, ordinary, commonly understood meaning" of the word "child" includes an "unborn child" — whether that's a fetus in a womb or an embryo in a freezer.

Hospitals and clinics across the conservative state have since paused in vitro fertilization services as they scramble to figure out the legal and ethical ramifications of the decision. Transport companies are also on hold as they assess the risks of carrying embryos out of state.

To better understand the ethics of IVF and what this ruling means for clinics, families and the more than a million embryos stored in freezers across the country, we spoke with Vardit Ravitsky, a professor of bioethics at the University of Montreal and president of the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in New York. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You became interested in the ethical issues of IVF as a college student, when a friend asked if you would consider donating an egg.

I was almost 20. I was absolutely fascinated by the notion of carrying a fetus that is not genetically related to you. What does that mean to be the biological mother of a fetus that is genetically not your child? On the flip side, what happens when you give your egg to another woman and you have a genetically related child that is not yours?

 

The notion of genetic relatedness — IVF kind of broke that. You can now carry a fetus that is not yours; you can give your genetics to another person. That blew my mind, because it took the notion of motherhood that was the same for all of human history and broke it down into two components.

So technology can change our fundamental concept of human beings. And that's what's happening here. We're talking about a batch of cells on ice, and we call it a child. That just wasn't possible before.

Do people have a common understanding of what an embryo is?

Embryo, fetus and newborn baby are, first and foremost, medical biological terms. An embryo is the name we use in the beginning of the development, up to about 11 weeks pregnancy or nine weeks in embryonic development. Then, when it's more developed, we call it a fetus. When it breathes on its own, outside of a female body, we call it a baby.

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