Parents Can File Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Destruction of Human Embryo

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 7, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Parents Can File Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Destruction of Human Embryo Email this article
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by Maria Vitale Gallagher Staff Writer
February 7, 2005

Chicago, IL ( — A county judge in Chicago has ruled that the parents of a frozen embryo which was accidentally destroyed at a fertility clinic have the right to file a wrongful death suit.

Legal experts say the case, which is drawing nationwide attention, could affect the debate over embryonic stem cell research, which involves the killing of human embryos to obtain their stem cells.

Cook County Judge Jeffrey Lawrence said in his decision that “a pre-embryo is a ‘human being’ … whether or not it is implanted in its mother’s womb."

Lawrence said the parents have the same right to seek compensation as any other parents whose child has been killed.

Alison Miller and Todd Parrish stored nine embryos at the Center for Human Reproduction in Chicago in January of 2000. Their physician told them that one embryo looked especially promising, but they were told six months later that the embryos had been discarded.

Lawrence based his decision on Illinois’ Wrongful Death Act, which permits lawsuits if unborn children are killed in an accident or assault. The law states that “The state of gestation or development of a human being” does not preclude taking legal action.

The judge also relied on a state law which states that an “unborn child is a human being from the time of conception and is, therefore, a legal person.”

Lawrence wrote, “There is no doubt in the mind of the Illinois Legislature when life begins.”

The couple’s wrongful death claims had been rejected by previous courts, but Lawrence reversed those decisions.

A lawyer representing the fertility clinic said an appeal is likely.

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago, Colleen Connell, told the Associated Press that the ruling could curb embryonic stem cell research.

However, pro-life advocates praised Lawrence’s ruling.

“Life begins at fertilization, not implantation,” Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League told the AP.

Meanwhile, court rulings on the treatment of embryos have been contradictory, according to attorney John Mayoue, who specializes in in-vitro law.

"We are considering embryos to be property for certain purposes and life for others, and that’s the incongruity," Mayoue told the AP.

And there are concerns that Lawrence’s opinion will be reversed on appeal.

“As an anti-abortion activist, I was pleased to see the judge’s initiative," Victor Rosenblum, a professor of law at Northwestern University, told the Chicago Tribune. “But as a lawyer, I can’t say that he is on solid ground in his reasoning."

Rosenblum, who has argued an abortion-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court, said it’s likely the decision will be overturned once the Appellate Court and the Illinois Supreme Court become involved.

"There is no doubt that pro-lifers believe life begins at conception. But there is no sign that the state law upholds that view," Rosenblum told the Tribune.