Profs: Ruling on embryos likely to be overturned

Helena Oh

A Cook County judge’s recent ruling that a fertilized egg is a “human being” will be a short-term victory for moral opponents of embryonic stem cell research, according to professors at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine .

A Chicago couple sued for damages in 2002 against a Chicago fertility clinic for accidentally discarding their fertilized egg, and the judge’s ruling now will allow the couple to file a wrongful-death suit against the clinic, reported Sunday’s Chicago Tribune.

Alison Miller and Todd Parrish went to the Center for Human Reproduction in 2000 because they were having problems conceiving. After successful treatment at the in-vitro fertilization clinic, they thought their fertilized egg would be preserved and frozen for future implantation, but when they were ready to conceive six months later, the center informed them of their loss.

If an Illinois appellate court does not overturn the judge’s ruling, its rationale could justify the end of stem cell research and further in-vitro fertilization. But it is unlikely this ruling will hold because the judge based his decision on an old abortion statute that was overturned in Illinois almost 20 years ago, said Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois.

“An embryo is not a person under the law,” Yohnka said. “Statutes provide some protection for fetus, (but) this doesn’t come close to any of those things.”

An embryo eventually turns into a fetus in a woman’s uterus. Because the embryo in question was not implanted into a uterus, it was not alive, said John Kessler, professor of neurology.

“We’re speaking about a ball of cells in a test tube,” Kessler said. “(The ruling) is scientifically flawed and it confuses a lot of issues. It is very hard to imagine that (the ruling) was not more than a personal opinion.”

The ruling could set a dangerous precedent for giving human embryos the same constitutional rights as human beings, said Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical humanities and bioethics.

“(Embryos) should be treated with dignity and respect, but they’re not considered a person,” Zoloth said.

Sarah Flashing, director of public relations at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, said she agreed that embryos should be treated with dignity and respect, but for different reasons.

“Human embryos are human beings,” Flashing wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “It is not that a human embryo has the potential to become a human being — a human embryo is already a living human being. His potential is to mature, not to become a human.”

The ruling most likely will be overturned because it is a scientific issue, not a moral one, said Michael Brannigan, vice president of clinical and organizational ethics at the Center for Practical Bioethics.

If anything, the case should be a wake-up call for more regulation at fertilization clinics, he said.

“There is a lack of a uniform policy regarding the disposition of embryos,” Brannigan said.

More than one fertilized egg can result from in-vitro fertilization, and patients can choose to freeze the excess embryos, donate them for adoption, discard them or donate them for research purposes.

“Stem cell research is important for (learning) how diseases begin and when and how they go away,” Zoloth said. “Most researchers can’t think of any other way.”

Reach Helena Oh at [email protected].