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Embryos Are Not Children

Susan Estrich on

The decision of the Alabama Supreme Court that frozen embryos are protected as children is being viewed as a major victory for the anti-abortion movement, which is ironic, to say the least, since its most immediate impact is to make the hellish trip to having children through in vitro fertilization even more difficult. So much for pro-life. So much for principle.

The decision sent shock waves throughout the medical world because of what it portends and what it says about the extremists on the right, and the punitive aspects of what is supposed to be a pro-family movement. The University of Alabama's IVF program announced a pause in the effort to help infertile men and women pursue parenthood because of the uncertain impact of the ruling.

Technically, the case wasn't even about abortion. It was about whether three couples could secure punitive damages in their lawsuit against a fertility clinic that inadvertently destroyed their frozen embryos. The claim for punitive damages under Alabama's 1872 Wrongful Death of a Minor Act was rejected by two lower courts, which found that frozen embryos were not people or children and thus were not protected by state law. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the embryos fit within an anti-abortion law's definition of children, and that the lawsuit could proceed.

What that means for those who are trying to get pregnant by stimulating their ovaries in the hopes of producing embryos that can be stored and preserved for implantation is anyone's guess. The anti-abortion movement has long been agitating for the official recognition that life begins at conception, which raises questions even as to the legality of forms of birth control, much less abortion. When a woman's ovaries are stimulated as the first step of IVF, multiple eggs may result, which are then fertilized and may be tested for genetic abnormalities. Can those with conditions inconsistent with life be destroyed? Where there are multiple embryos, can some be frozen rather than implanted so as to reduce the risks of multiple pregnancies? What about all the young women who are not yet ready, or not yet coupled, and wish to freeze their eggs before they are fertilized? Is an unfertilized egg protected as a potential child?

Anti-abortion groups applauded the ruling, which could potentially criminalize what are now best medical practices aimed at limiting multiple pregnancies and allowing families to avoid repeated cycles of IVF treatments. "The Alabama Supreme Court held that the text of the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act is clear and applies to all pre-born children, including the plaintiffs' embryonic pre-born children. In doing so, the Court correctly acknowledged the legal status of embryos as human persons," Americans United for Life said in a statement. "This decision is a step in the right direction toward ensuring that all pre-born children are equally protected under the law."

 

A friend's child was afraid to pass on a life-threatening genetic heart condition. Thanks to modern medical advances, they were able to test the embryos to ensure that the one that the doctor implanted was not affected. The gift of a healthy baby is not something any court should have the power to threaten or take away. These life-changing personal decisions should be protected as private, not manipulated as props in a political and ideological sport. Roughly 10% of American men and women suffer from fertility issues, which make IVF their best and sometimes only chance of becoming parents. What is a movement that purports to be "pro-life" and "pro-parenthood" doing making the road to having a family even more fraught with pain and uncertainty, not to mention more costly and more risky than it already is?

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To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


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