After Alabama Supreme Court’s embryo personhood ruling, what comes next?

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after-alabama-supreme-court’s-embryo-personhood-ruling,-what-comes-next?

CNA Staff, Feb 23, 2024 / 17:50 pm

An Alabama Supreme Court decision that established the personhood of frozen embryos drew praise from pro-life groups. The possible wider effects of the decision, meanwhile, remain shrouded in uncertainty. 

The state Supreme Court ruled that frozen human embryos constitute children under state statute, a decision that could have wide-reaching effects on in vitro fertilization treatments.

The nine-judge court said in the 8-1 ruling that the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act is “sweeping and unqualified” and that its provisions extend to children “regardless of their location.”

“It applies to all children, born and unborn, without limitation,” the ruling said. “It is not the role of this court to craft a new limitation based on our own view of what is or is not wise public policy.”

The court’s decision came about as part of a lawsuit brought by several parents whose frozen embryos had been accidentally destroyed at a fertility clinic. The plaintiffs had argued that the destruction fell under the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act.

Pro-life advocates praised the decision. Katie Daniel, the state policy director for SBA Pro-Life America, said in a statement to CNA that the court in its ruling “recognized what is obvious and a scientific fact — life begins at conception.” 

“That does not mean fertility treatment is prohibited,” Daniel said. “Rather it means fertility treatments need not carelessly or intentionally destroy the new life created.” 

“Alabama or anyone concerned by this decision can look to Louisiana, which has had a law in place since the 1980s that requires IVF be practiced in a more ethical way,” she said. She noted that “1,000 babies are born every year in that state as a result of IVF.”

Lila Rose, the president and founder of Live Action, likewise said after the ruling that the decision “affirms the scientific reality that a new human life begins at the moment of fertilization.”

“This ruling, which involved a wrongful-death claim brought by parents against a fertility clinic that negligently caused the death of their children, rightly acknowledged the humanity of unborn children created through in vitro fertilization,” Rose said, calling the decision “an important step towards applying equal protection for all.”

Will it affect other states?

Though the ruling was understandably welcomed by pro-life advocates, it is less certain how the court decision may play out beyond the state of Alabama.

The question before the state Supreme Court was whether or not frozen embryos should be considered children under Alabama state statute. Jay Tidmarsh, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, told CNA that the ruling “decided only a question of state law.”

“On whether this will go to the U.S. Supreme Court, I think many people do not realize that the U.S. Supreme Court decides only issues of federal law,” Tidmarsh said. 

“On matters of [Alabama] state law, the Alabama Supreme Court has the final word, not the United States Supreme Court,” Tidmarsh said. 

“For the United States Supreme Court to become involved in this case, therefore, the Alabama decision must involve an issue of federal law,” he said.

The Constitution established the Supreme Court as overseeing cases involving “controversies to which the United States shall be a party,” as well as “controversies between two or more states.” The Alabama decision “does not decide or invoke any matter of federal law,” Tidmarsh pointed out. 

“I could well imagine some theories of federal law that the decision might implicate, but none of those theories was mentioned in the opinion,” he said. 

Danielle Pimentel, who serves as policy counsel at Americans United for Life, echoed Tidmarsh’s assessment. 

“Right now I don’t see there are any federal questions to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said. The decision was “focused on Alabama law and will stay within Alabama,” she said.

The ruling “doesn’t limit IVF or access to it,” she pointed out. “It simply ensures that both the parents and the children are protected under the Wrongful Death of the Minor Act. If the fertility clinic is acting negligently, parents can potentially bring a civil claim.”

The state Supreme Court’s decision, meanwhile, is only part of the lawsuit brought by the parents whose embryonic children had died at the fertility clinic, Pimentel noted. 

“[The court’s ruling] wasn’t a ruling on the merits,” she said. “We still don’t know what a trial court will decide on whether the defendants have violated the act. I think we’ll have to wait and see what the trial court decides.”

The Catholic Church has long condemned the IVF process and the production of embryos. There are now an estimated 1 million frozen embryos in the U.S. alone.

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In 1996, Pope John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted.”

The Holy Father had noted at the time that there “seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons.” 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, meanwhile, wrote in the 1987 document Donum Vitae that even an IVF and embryo-transfer procedure that is “free of any compromise with the abortive practice of destroying embryos and with masturbation remains a technique which is morally illicit because it deprives human procreation of the dignity which is proper and connatural to it.”


Daniel Payne

Daniel Payne is a senior editor at Catholic News Agency. He previously worked at the College Fix and Just the News. He lives in Virginia with his family.

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