Alabama Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Embryonic Human Life

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In a landmark decision, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday in favor of protecting embryonic human life from wrongful death.

Embryos are created routinely through in vitro fertilization, a process by which ova are fertilized with sperm in a laboratory rather than in a woman’s body.

The process of creating and cryopreserving embryos can be dangerous for embryonic children, who often are destroyed intentionally or through neglect.

In the case heard by the Alabama Supreme Court, three sets of parents suffered an unimaginable loss: the death of their embryonic children due to a fertility clinic’s negligence.

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A hospital patient wandered into the unsecured embryo storage facility and removed a container of embryos from a sub-zero freezer. The intruder dropped the embryos in pain, resulting in the deaths of the embryonic children within.

The parents brought two lawsuits against the fertility clinic and the hospital under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act.

At the behest of the fertility clinic and medical association, however, a lower trial court had dismissed the case, ruling that the “cryopreserved, in vitro embryos involved in this case do not fit within the definition of a ‘person’ or ‘child.’” Therefore, the trial court held, the loss of the embryos “could not give rise to a wrongful-death claim.”

The Alabama Supreme Court rightly reversed this ruling. In a powerful opinion by Justice Jay Mitchell and a concurring opinion by Chief Justice Tom Parker, the state’s highest court argued that the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act “applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location.”

Mitchell rejected the notion that an extrauterine embryo “is not a minor child, but is instead property,” as the trial court had concluded. Rather, the three sets of parents suffered a grievous loss when their embryonic children were killed.

In his concurring opinion, Parker argued that Alabama laws about the sanctity of human life should be applied to the sanctity of unborn life, too. His opinion boldly appealed to the theological and natural law premises of state law.

“In summary,” he argues,

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the theologically based view of the sanctity of life adopted by the People of Alabama encompasses the following: (1) God made every person in His image; (2) each person therefore has a value that far exceeds the ability of human beings to calculate; and (3) human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.

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This decision rightly places the well-being of children front and center in how clinics practice in vitro fertilization and embryo cryopreservation. Moreover, Parker recognizes that each child is created in the image of God and therefore deserves the full force of the law’s protections.

As Josh Craddock, an affiliated scholar with the James Wilson Institute points out, this specific case deals only with wrongful death claims involving cryopreserved embryos, not necessarily any embryo created through IVF.

“This [decision] has implications for the destruction of embryos held in frozen storage more generally, Craddock told me. “You could see a scenario where this decision could be used in the future to help protect those human lives from destruction by the IVF clinics themselves … or by the other parent, for example.”

Craddock said the ruling by Alabama’s high court could help clarify what to do with frozen embryos after a divorce. In some cases, for example, one parent wants to use the embryos and the other parent wants to destroy them.

“A lot of courts have wrestled with how to deal with that situation, whether it should be determined by contract [and] whether the embryos should be considered marital property rather than persons,” Craddock told me.

This case, although the first of its kind, provides a strong precedent for other states’ supreme courts. Many states have a similar law protecting minors from wrongful death that could be applied to embryonic children, as the Alabama Supreme Court did.

When asked about the strength of the Alabama ruling, Craddock seemed optimistic about the ongoing viability of the decision.

“I think it’s definitely going to stick around because it recognizes a basic moral truth that’s written on our hearts and backed up by basic science found in any basic science textbook,” he said.

As noted by Parker, Alabama’s chief justice, “each person has a value that far exceeds the ability of human beings to calculate.”

Alabama has taken the first step toward extending personhood to all human beings, no matter how small. Let’s hope that this ruling is the first of many moving toward universal protection of ­embryonic children from destruction.

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