Court Issues Rare Ruling Against Destroying Human Embryos

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Apr 17, 2012   |   4:40PM   |   Harrisburg, PA

A recent case in a Pennsylvania court held the lives of thirteen little human embryos in its hand. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Andrea Lynn Reiss and her husband Bret Howard Reber underwent IVF. The doctors told Ms. Reiss that she would be unfertile after the cancer treatment and so they wanted insurance against future infertility and they created 13 embryos and froze them.

Ms. Reiss completed her treatment but Mr. Reber filed for divorce. Ms. Reiss, claiming she was now infertile, wanted custody of the embryos. Mr. Reber wanted them destroyed.

The court decided for Ms. Reiss and gave her custody of the embryos saying, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that:

“Because Wife cannot achieve genetic parenthood otherwise, we conclude that Wife’s interest in biological procreation through the use of these pre-embryos outweighs Husband’s professed interest against procreation.”

Ignoring the fact that there is no such thing as a “pre-embryo”, this decision is a departure from court cases in other states where the courts have decided the other way. A court in Tennessee said that unwanted parenthood would be the greater burden and ordered the embryos destroyed. Another court in Massachusetts said it “would not enforce an agreement that would compel one donor to become a parent against his or her will.”

The Inquirer reported that the Court said that “the couple’s conflict could have been avoided if they had signed an agreement spelling out what to do with the embryos in case of divorce or death, or if the state legislature had passed a law addressing the issue.”

Actually, this and other cases could be totally avoided if we did not allow mass manufacturing and freezing of human lives in a laboratory. These couples are already parents. The question is not whether parenthood is forced on them (they freely chose to become parents in undergoing IVF), but whether these embryos deserve a chance to finish their lives.



Step back and realize how surreal this situation is. These offspring have had their fates decided by a court where one parent wants to give at least some of them a chance to finish the lives that IVF started and the other parent just wants them destroyed. How far have we come in this world of “reproductive rights” for the parents that this scenario, where children’s lives are at the mercy of a court, is becoming more common place?

Human lives being created in batches and then kept on ice (for parents to fight over) should never have occurred in the first place. Other countries like Germany and Italy have laws that prohibit the cryopreservation of embryos which prevents this very case. They allow IVF, but any embryos that are created have to be transferred to the mother. There is tremendous pressure on European countries to relax their very heavy restrictions on fertility treatments and who can receive them. But if they succumb to the pressure, these countries will inevitably encounter the same sticky legal and ethical situations as faced the Pennsylvania court.

In the United States, we have no federal regulation of the fertility industry. IVF practitioners can extract as many eggs from a woman as possible and mass-produce as many embryos as they want. There as many as half a million frozen embryos, and counting, waiting in fertility clinics all over the United States for their parents to decide their fate.

This is an untenable situation that we should never have allowed to happen. Until we regulate the fertility industry and realize that embryos are not “potential human life”, but instead “human life with potential”, our courts will continue to be charged with deciding the fate of these littlest of human lives. A decision they should never be charged to make.