US State Court Rules Embryos Can Be Considered Children

    22 February 2024

    The Supreme Court of Alabama has ruled that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law.

    The ruling immediately influenced the way fertility treatment services operate in the southeastern U.S. state. On Wednesday, the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital said it paused all fertility treatments while it considers the ruling's significance.

    The court decision involved two wrongful death cases brought by three couples who had frozen embryos destroyed in an accident at a fertility center.

    The exterior of the Alabama Supreme Court building in Montgomery, Ala., is shown Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)
    The exterior of the Alabama Supreme Court building in Montgomery, Ala., is shown Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

    In their decision, the justices noted recent and longstanding parts of the Alabama Constitution. The justices ruled that an 1872 state law permitting parents to bring legal action over the death of a minor child "applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location."

    "Unborn children are ‘children' ... without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other...characteristics," Justice Jay Mitchell wrote. The high court released the ruling on February 16.

    Mitchell said the court had ruled earlier that fetuses killed while a woman is pregnant are covered under Alabama's Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. Nothing excludes "extrauterine children from the Act's coverage," he wrote.

    The ruling is likely to influence fertility treatments and the activity of freezing of embryos, which are fertilized eggs. A court opinion in Virginia last year said that frozen embryos can be considered property.

    Barbara Collura is chief of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, a non-profit group based in Virginia. Collura told the Associated Press that the ruling raises questions for "in vitro fertilization," or IVF, the method of fertilizing eggs in a laboratory.

    She said the "ruling is stating that a fertilized egg, which is a clump of cells, is now a person. It really puts into question, the practice of IVF." The group called the Alabama high court's decision "terrifying" for people affected by infertility.

    She said the ruling also raises questions for providers of IVF services and for patients. It is unclear whether they can freeze embryos created during fertility treatment or if patients could ever donate or destroy unused embryos.

    Sean Tipton is a spokesman with the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. He said at least one Alabama fertility center was told to stop IVF treatments by the hospital overseeing it since the decision.

    Dr. Paula Amato is president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Washington D.C. She said: "No health care provider will be willing to provide treatments if those treatments may lead to civil or criminal charges."

    The couples in the Alabama case had undergone IVF treatments that led to the creation of several embryos. Some of the embryos were implanted and resulted in healthy births. The couples paid to keep the other embryos frozen in a storage center at the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center. A patient in 2020 entered the area and removed several embryos, dropping them on the floor and "killing them," the ruling said.

    The justices then ruled that couple's wrongful death legal case could go forward. The clinic and hospital that are defendants in the case could ask the court to reconsider its decision.

    One group that opposes abortion, the non-profit Live Action, supported the decision. "Each person, from the tiniest embryo to an elder nearing the end of his life...deserves and is guaranteed legal protection," said President Lila Rose in a statement.

    Justice Greg Cook wrote the only full dissent to the majority opinion. He said the 1872 law did not define "minor child" and the meaning of the term was being extended to cover frozen embryos.

    He added the ruling "almost certainly ends the creation of frozen embryos through in vitro fertilization (IVF) in Alabama."

    The Alabama Supreme Court decision partly depended on language added to the Alabama Constitution in 2018. It states it is the policy of the "state to ensure the protection of the rights of the unborn child."

    In Alabama, supreme court justices are elected officials who serve six-year terms. Currently, all are members of the Republican Party.

    I'm Dan Novak.

    Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.


    Words in This Story

    couple — n. two people linked by a relationship or marriage

    apply — v. to cover under law

    characteristic — n. a quality that makes something different from something else

    extrauterine — adj. outside of a woman's womb and body

    implant –v. to put into the womb by medical operation

    dissent — n. an opinion in disagreement to the majority opinion in a court which can serve other legal cases and future legal findings