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People today are living in a world that is advanced technologically, making man very powerful to the extent of doing anything he wants. Man today has the power to manipulate life to his own convenience. He can restrain nature or even make it wilder depending on his desires. In essence, man has given himself the power to the extent that he thinks he can do what God does. He started with human cloning; now it is in vitro fertilization. All these show that man has unlimited capacities, he can do whatever he likes with technology. However, this advancement has generated more debate in terms of legal and ethical issues. In this paper, we will look at the case of frozen embryos and the issues generated about them.
As already indicated, freezing embryos is an issue that has generated a lot of discourse on the humanity and morality of the human race. Moral and ethical aspects have come up from this case, some of which are just difficult to comprehend leave alone, deal with. Human embryos conceived in vitro in most cases are usually many to the extent that it is not possible to transfer them all to the mother. This is why the extra embryos are frozen so that they can be used later in case the transfer fails. Embryos are also frozen for the purpose of transferring them into surrogate mothers, who, with the consent of the owner of the embryo, carry the embryo to maturity. Embryos can also be frozen if genetic examination of the cells of the embryos is needed to determine only the high-quality embryos to be transferred and leave out defective or low-quality ones. Researchers can also freeze embryos for the purpose of keeping or storing living cells that are valuable for use in experiments for future advancements in reproductive health (PRN, n.d).
Although man claims that he has advanced technology in relation to the preservation of embryos, studies have shown that there are many risks involved with the survival of the frozen embryos. For instance, during freezing and the thawing that falls, many of the frozen embryos usually die or are subjected to irreparable damage in these processes. These are just consequences that can be felt immediately, however, there are far more adverse consequences. Research has shown that products of frozen embryos have pronounced variations in their behavior and morphological functioning. Despite these disturbing statistics, most laws do not place any limit in terms of numbers, on embryos that should be produced in vitro. This has led to situations where embryos are produced in surplus, then preserved for future use either to be transferred to the genetic or surrogate mother, or for donation and experimentation. For instance, laws in Great Britain allow embryos to be used in research and experimentation. They also allow surplus production of embryos to be stored specifically for scientific research. Germany’s laws differ from laws in other countries in that they try to defend the wellbeing of the embryos. They prohibit the extraction and fertilization of more than three eggs in one instance. It also requires that all fertilized eggs should be transferred to the mother to avoid any surplus of embryos. Under these laws, embryos can only be preserved if a delay in transferring them to the mother is necessary (PRN, n.d).
The issue is, therefore, not necessarily about the production of embryos, but about their fate once produced. This is why many laws that allow the preservation of embryos have a time span provision to avoid ramifications that may arise concerning the existence of frozen embryos. The time usually varies from country to country usually between one to five years. What this means is that many unused embryos are killed every year. These are innocent lives that the law allows to be terminated. Preservation of embryos for long also gives way for unexpected eventualities like death or divorce whereby the owners of the embryos no longer know what to do with the embryos. It is such issues that call for the question of morals and ethics whereby fertilization clinics have been sued in regards to frozen embryos. This is why it is important to understand the laws and the legal issues concerning frozen embryos (PRN, n.d).
The law and legal issues
There are many legal issues that arise from the freezing and storing of embryos for use in the future. Some of these include the time span in which the embryos can be stored, how they are to be disposed of once the storage period elapses, measures to be taken in case of disputes between couples, and the issue of inheritance, whereby questions are raised as to whether an embryo is entitled to a deceased person’s inheritance. As already mentioned, there is little in terms of legislation concerning frozen embryos, therefore to understand the laws and legal issues on this subject will need an evaluation of the various cases that have been dealt with in this area, specifically dealing with the issue of disposing of frozen embryos. When confronted with the question of disposition, courts are usually in a dilemma because embryos have no legal status under the law. In cases that have been presented before the courts, the law applied has always been based on the facts and circumstances of the parties involved and on the views of presiding judges. This has often resulted in inconsistencies in the way embryos are characterized. However, three divergent characterizations stand out (Kerridge et al., 2005).
Some courts regard frozen embryos as human beings deserving all the legal rights granted to humans because they are alive biologically and carry with them the inherent potential to be human. Such a position was held in the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade. In this case, the court ruled that embryos were intentionally created to bring forth life and therefore, no right of reproduction had been violated. Other court rulings considered frozen embryos as property. They base this on the argument that frozen embryos are just like any other human tissue when legally regarded as property. Under the property law, the owners of embryos are considered to have full authority over the embryos and can therefore do whatever they please with them. There is a third position that is taken by courts in an effort to reconcile the first controversial positions. In this stance, courts have argued that embryos carry a special status and therefore should be given special respect. They do not see them as humans, but as something greater than just property (Kerridge et al., 2005).
All these positions have been held in various court cases concerning frozen embryos. The most prominent case was that of Davis v. Davis in Tennessee where Davis the husband wanted the courts to declare that the frozen embryos were a party of their marital property held jointly in an effort to prevent the wife from undergoing embryo implant without his consent. The circuit court granted the wife custody of the embryos citing the fact that it had to consider the best interest of the unborn child whose continued survival would be assured if with the mother. Davies appealed whereby the court of appeal reversed the circuit court’s ruling and held that the embryos were marital property held jointly and therefore, allowing the wife to have their possession would violate public policy (Kerridge et al., 2005).
In this case, the court of appeal rejected to regard frozen embryos as property and accorded them special respect because they have the potential to be human. It meant that such a case can only ne solved after balancing the rights of the parties involved as granted by law. Use of contracts has been seen by many as the solution to such eventualities. However, no statute in all the states has validated such agreements. Judgments can be made based on contract law as provided under the common law. But even the common law does not adequately address the disputes that emerge concerning frozen embryos especially their disposition. It is therefore, paramount that laws are enacted to address the legal uncertainty that surround frozen embryos (Kerridge et al., 2005).
An embryo is part of the human generation and therefore, deserves an unconditional respect because of its inherent capacity of being human. This is an argument that many opponents of freezing embryo put forward. It is argued that freezing embryos is a practice that simply refuses to accept that an embryo is a human being. Many have asserted that the authentic humanity carried by embryos should be acknowledged by everyone despite that fact that they have not fully unfolded their personality. They therefore see no justification whatsoever for the production of excess embryos and the subsequent freezing for future use. Those for the preservation of embryos argue that freezing saves embryos from destruction. However, opponents argue that it will only be seen that way if the saving guarantees that all the embryos will end in maturity and final birth. But this is not usually the case as many of the frozen embryos end up being destroyed. Although it is argued that freezing is totally harmless and that the death of embryos is associated with technological imperfections, it still does not justify excessive production and freezing of embryos (Faggioni, 2000).
Much legislation require that experimental techniques are first tested on animals before being carried out on humans, it is therefore ethically wrong to produce many embryo of which, you do not know the best way of storing them. The preservation procedure therefore, violates the integrity and survival of the embryo. An embryo is a human creature that should be left to develop on its own. Freezing denies them this God given property. Opponents still argue that using unnatural means to conceive embryos and preserving them in unnatural conditions does not make them less human. But this still posse an ethical dilemma as to what should be done to the already produced embryos. How else can they be saved? In such a case, those involved have the obligation to transfer the embryos to a mother immediately as possible. If this is not possible, then the embryos can be frozen with the sole intention of transferring them into a mother as soon as possible (Faggioni, 2000).
Catholic morality rejects the freezing of embryos completely because they are human, hence they deserve dignity. However, others believe in an ethical minimum when it comes to protecting human life. They believe that a husband can not prevent a wife to receive an embryo that is already conceived, arguing that no one has the right to deny a life that has already began from existing and developing. The embryo being human does not get its right of existing from agreements made between its parents, nor by being recognized by law, but simply because it is human. Even if the meaning of procreation, sexual union and conception are distorted in the production embryos, it is ethical wrong to store them in a state of limbo unsure of when they will be brought back to life (Faggioni, 2000).
The interesting thing about this area of law
As already shown, there are no legislations that clearly guide the fate of frozen embryos. As such, court cases have been determined on situations, circumstances and personal opinions of both the parties and the presiding judges. We can therefore; say the case of frozen embryos is more or less guided by natural law, which calls on humans to rationally participate in eternal law. Under this law, man is a master of his actions whereby he is supposed to do good and avoid evil. But the problem comes in when judging between good and evil. Perhaps after looking at the circumstances, the act may be justified. A couple in capable of having kids may be justified to look for frozen embryos with the hope of raising a kid of their own. The intention is good, however, if acquiring an embryos endangers the life of other embryos, then it ceases from being a moral act.
When freezing embryos, humans usually have the intention of either using them later for research, donation or future implants to have kids, this is aimed at improving the well being of others in the society as natural dictates. However, in their effort to do good and avoid evil, human life may be destroyed through the destruction of embryos, this is evil. But the intention is to improve the lives of others in the society. This is what makes this part of the law interesting. Judges are torn between what is good and what is evil. Using an embryo for the good of the society may be justified, but killing a life is evil. This is why it is difficult not just to rule on such cases, but also to come with legislations to guide the use of frozen embryos (Simon, 2008).
We have seen that the case of frozen embryos has generated heated debate all over the world. There are no clear laws governing frozen embryos. Decisions made therefore, are based on a range of opinions. There are those who argue that embryos are human, others argue that embryos are just like property, still others think that embryos are neither human nor property, but entities that deserve special respect. The use of frozen embryos has also sparked ethical issues especially from theologians who think that is morally wrong to kill freeze embryos, which they see as humans. It is therefore, difficult to come up with legislations, that is why there are no write or wrong answers concerning the issue of frozen embryos, what exist are just moral judgments.
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Faggioni, M. P. (2000). The question of frozen embryos.
Kerridge et al. (2005). Ethics and law for the health professions. New York, NY: Federation Press.
PRN. (n.d.). The Fate of Thousands of Abandoned Frozen Embryos.
Simon, M. L. (2008). Should Unclaimed Frozen Embryos be Destroyed or Used for Stem Cell Research? Web.