On March 3 a liquid nitrogen storage tank at the University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland failed. More than 950 patients lost over 4,000 frozen eggs and embryos. The hospital attributed the tragic incident to “human error”.
More than 70 aggrieved patients have brought over 40 lawsuits against University Hospitals of Cleveland, although most of these claims have been consolidated into a single case. But one couple, Wendy and Rick Penniman, has attempted to sue on the basis of “wrongful death”. Their lawsuit seeks to establish that embryos should be treated as legal persons and that the life of a person begins at conception.
The “chain of profound implications for other families” dismays three bioethicists and lawyers writing in Annals of Internal Medicine, Eli Adashi, of Brown University; I. Glenn Cohen, of Harvard; and Dov Fox, of the University of San Diego. They believe that a ruling in favour of the plaintiffs could lead to limits on abortion, stem cell research and in vitro fertilization (IVF).
“It would be a sad irony if a legal claim aimed at protecting the rights of those who lost their ability to reproduce had the effect of limiting the reproductive rights of countless others,” the authors write.
A ruling that embryos are persons could be used as grounds to limit abortion rights, the authors point out, as well as to potentially restrict research on embryonic stem cells. There could be implications for the future of IVF as well.