Alabama Says Embryos in a Lab Are Children. What Are the Implications?

The Alabama Supreme Court has opened a new front in the legal debate over when human life begins. Embryos created and stored in a medical facility must be considered children under the state’s law governing harmful death, the court ruled.

Friday’s ruling was cheered by anti-abortion activists nationwide, who have long argued that life begins at conception. They were thrilled that, for the first time, a court included conception outside the uterus in that definition. But the strongest and most immediate effect of the decision will be on fertility patients trying to get pregnant, not women seeking to end their pregnancies.

The Alabama ruling invites states to enact strict new regulations over the fertility industry that could sharply limit the number of embryos created during a cycle of medical treatment and affect the future of millions of stored frozen embryos. A concurring opinion even offered road maps for such statutes. That could have a chilling effect on a person seeking to have children through in vitro fertilization, whether single or part of a same-sex or heterosexual couple.

The ruling is actually somewhat narrow. It applies to three couples who had sued the Center for Reproductive Medicine, a fertility clinic in Mobile, for inadvertently destroying their embryos. The plaintiffs argued that they were entitled to punitive damages under Alabama’s 1872 Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. Two lower state courts disagreed, saying the embryos were neither people nor children. The State Supreme Court reversed those rulings, saying that the embryos fell squarely under Alabama’s definition of minors and that the negligence lawsuits could proceed. The case will now go back to the State District Court for further litigation.

The decision is silent on the fate of other frozen embryos in Alabama because that issue was not before the court. The ruling is only about the terms under which plaintiffs may bring a negligence case against a fertility clinic for embryo destruction. However, it could eventually have major consequences for Alabama patients and providers.

On Wednesday, the I.V.F. clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham announced it was pausing fertility treatments to explore the implications of the court’s ruling on its patients and providers. One fear is that the clinic, doctors and even patients may face daunting new liability issues surrounding the handling of embryos.

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