The legal debate is underway – are embryos stored in fertility clinics alive and are they classed as persons? Rick et Wendy Penniman lost their frozen embryos following an equipment malfunction at the Cleveland Fertility Clinic. Represented by their lawyer, Bruce Taubman, they are pressing charges on the grounds of “wrongful death”. Glenn Cohen, Professor of Law at Harvard University and an expert in medical ethics and medical law explains: “The specific question to be answered is whether they [the embryos] fit Ohio’s definition of a person under the wrongful death law”.
“We are asking the court to rule that an embryo is a person and that life begins at conception”, says the lawyer. And the couple considers that life begins at conception, which means that “embryos have the legal status of a person”.
In 1973, during the Roe versus Wade trial, it was held that “a foetus that develops after the embryonic state is not a person”. Mr Taubman qualifies that by pointing out that the sole purpose of the trial was to lead to an abortion. In the Werling versus Sandy trial in 1985, the Ohio Supreme Court held that a “viable foetus is a person”, believing that life begins at conception.
“People ask ‘When does life begin?’ but the question shouldn’t be asked in that way. It’s obvious that a foetus is alive, that it’s a living thing, but the question is whether it’s a person”, says Glenn Cohen, who believes that, if the foetus is not viable, there can be no issue of “wrongful death”. As far as he is concerned, a foetus that has not yet been implanted will not necessarily lead to a full-term pregnancy. He therefore thinks that “these proceedings will not culminate in a declaration that an embryo is a person”.
The couple’s lawyer, Bruce Taubman, is more optimistic: “I see this case ending up before the Ohio Supreme Court. I would like to think that they will follow my reasoning and hold that the embryo is indeed a person”. He hopes that this decision will enable all other parents to initiate “wrongful death” proceedings.