Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Question of Embryos and Legal Status

What constitutes 'a person' under the law? At first glance, this seems such a simple question; however, the more I think about this, and the more I investigate, I am realizing that there is not a clear answer. There clearly has not been a consensus amongst the legal and scientific communities.

Recently the Los Angeles Times examined the issues surrounding leftover frozen embryos. Many couples in the United States with frozen embryos leftover from fertility treatments are “finding themselves ensnared in a debate about when life begins”. These couples have three choices: discard them, donate them to research or donate them to another couple for potential pregnancy. There are initiatives in several states that seek to protect embryos. One of these initiatives defines a fertilized egg as a person in the state constitution (Colorado). Indiana lawmakers are proposing an allowance for leftover frozen embryos to be adopted for implantation by another couple. New Jersey legislators have proposed allowing unused embryos to become wards of the state, and Georgia and West Virginia are considering legislations that would grant embryos “personhood status”. This is a very slippery slope; for, if the Supreme Court allows these proposals, one would be in a position to say all abortions must stop.

Roe v. Wade is the historic Supreme Court decision overturning a Texas interpretation of abortion law and making abortion legal in the United States. The Roe v. Wade decision held that a woman, with her doctor, could choose abortion in earlier months of pregnancy without restriction based on the right to privacy. At the time of this decision, it was clear that an embryo was not a “person”, or abortion would have been “murder”; thus illegal. In Davis v. Davis the lower court found that “human embryos are not property, and human life begins at conception”. However, the Supreme Court of Tennessee overruled this by saying something quite different, that embryos occupied a special status of “quasi-property”. Most recently, the Oregon Court of Appeals has ordered six frozen embryos be destroyed after ruling they can be treated as personal property in a divorce.

So, in essence, it remains unclear in the scientific world “when life begins”, but in the “legal world” it is quite clear that embryos are not “persons under the law” (yet). In fact, at this time it appears embryos are simply “property”! Did I answer my own question? Embryos are life forms, but not persons?

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