National News

Alabama Court Rules Frozen Embryos Can Be Lawfully Considered ‘Unborn Children’

Petri dishes are pictured in a laboratory. The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law (Photo: OSV News/Cancer Research UK, Handout via Reuters)

WASHINGTON — A ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court said that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law and as a result someone who destroys them could be held liable for wrongful death.

The first of its kind decision issued Feb.16 could significantly impact future infertility treatments in the state and could have a ripple effect if other states view the Alabama ruling as precedent.

“Unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics,” Justice Jay Mitchell wrote in the majority opinion.

Days after the ruling was issued, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital stopped its in vitro fertilization treatment as hospital officials considered the court’s decision.

In a statement, the hospital spokeswoman said: “We are saddened that this will impact our patients’ attempt to have a baby through IVF.”

The court’s ruling was from an appeals case from three couples whose frozen embryos were destroyed in 2020 when a hospital patient removed them from where they were stored in the clinic and dropped them on the floor.

The parents had sued for wrongful death, but a trial court dismissed their claims, saying the embryos did not fit in the definition of a person or child.

The state’s highest court disagreed and said that an 1872 statute in Alabama that allows parents to sue over the wrongful death of a minor child also applies to unborn children, with no exception for “extrauterine children.”

In its majority opinion, the justices also pointed out that the state’s residents in 2018 voted to amend the Constitution to include protections for unborn life.

“The People of Alabama have declared the public policy of this State to be that unborn human life is sacred,” Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote in his concurring opinion. “We believe that each human being, from the moment of conception, is made in the image of God, created by Him to reflect His likeness.”

Attorneys for the defendants — the Alabama fertility clinic, the hospital and its owner — argued before the court that a wrongful-death liability for frozen embryos would significantly increase the costs of the infertility treatment and could also make it a burden to preserve embryos for the future. In an amicus brief, the state’s medical association said this liability could also mean that parents cannot opt to discard embryos and they would remain frozen.

While the decision was cheered by anti-abortion groups, it raised questions for many about its potential impact.

The Catholic Church has spoken out against IVF, particularly for the treatment of embryos.

“Donum Vitae,” a 1987 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says IVF is never acceptable because it removes conception from the marital act and it treats a baby as a product, “violating the child’s integrity as a human being with an immortal soul from the moment of conception.”

The document also stresses that human embryos are human beings with rights and that “their dignity and right to life must be respected from the first moment of their existence. It is immoral to produce human embryos destined to be exploited as disposable ‘biological material.’”