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The Supreme Court of Alabama's IVF Ruling_ The Redefining of Personhood.pdf (75.53 kB)

The Supreme Court of Alabama's IVF Ruling: The Redefining of Personhood

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posted on 2024-05-15, 16:14 authored by Sierra Seabra

On February 16th, 2024, The Supreme Court of Alabama ruled, 8-1, that embryos created through vitro-fertilization (IVF) can be considered children under Alabama's State Law.[1] This decision was issued in combination with a pair of wrongful deaths of minor lawsuits, as The Mobile Infirmary Medical Center was found in violation of the state's Wrongful Death Act, as the medical center failed to secure the storage area containing the embryos. According to the Wrongful Death Act, “When the death of a minor child is caused by the wrongful act, omission, or negligence of any person, persons, or corporation or the servants or agents of either, the father, or the mother ” in which the court asserted the frozen embryos were legally deemed as human beings and the negligence of the fertility clinic. [2] The Wrongful Deaths Act provisions that the death of a minor child, including embryos, can result in fertility clinics facing legal prosecution for acts of negligence. The recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling expands the legal categorization of “children” and carries implications on reproductive rights, the future of in-vitro fertilization practices, and this evolving concept of “personhood” within legislation.

The lawsuit prompting this ruling was brought on behalf of multiple sets of parents who had been undergoing vitro-fertilization treatments at The Center for Reproductive Medicine, located in Mobile, Alabama, which resulted in the creation of several embryos. The parents proceeded to store the frozen embryos at The Mobile Infirmary Medical Center in where an incident occurred as a patient entered the cryogenic nursery and removed several frozen embryos belonging to the plaintiffs. The lawsuit seeks costs and punitive damages for “the Defendants’ negligent conduct that led to the wrongful deaths of the Plaintiff's three embryonic children.” [3]

Justice Jay Mitchell issued his majority opinion, broadening the legal definition of “children'' under Alabama State Law. Justice Jay Mitchell writes in the ruling “Unborn children are ‘children’... without expectation based on developmental, stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics”. [4] Justice Mitchell's description of frozen embryos extends formal recognition to the unborn at every stage of development, regardless of their location, whether inside or outside the womb. Justice Mitchell further strengthened his ruling by citing the court case Hamilton vs. Scott (note 5), including fetuses killed while a woman is pregnant is covered under Alabama's Wrongful Death of a Minor Act and nothing will exclude “extrauterine children from the Acts coverage (note 6)”. Justice Mitchell citing the 1872 statute further reaffirms the Supreme Court of Alabama’s dedication to treating all preborns, regardless of location, with legal uniformity in cases of wrongful death of a minor. 

Justice Mitchells reinterpretation of “children” under Alabama State Law, is subsequently followed by Chief Justice Tom Parker's concurring opinion that integrates religious principles into legal context. Justice Parker wrote “ Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing glory” (note 6) citing heavily from religious scripture and references to The Book of Genesis when further defining “the sanctity of unborn life” (note 7) amended into the 2018 Alabama State Constitution. The interaction between religious doctrines and legal reasoning prompts scrutiny from the legal profession and members of the public regarding this intersection of christian theology and legal interpretations when enacting unprecedented reproductive legislation. Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans for Separation of Church and State, criticizes the ruling,“Now we're in a place where government officials feel embodied to say the quiet part out loud and directly challenge the separation of church and state, a foundational part of our democracy”. [8] Laser's criticism acknowledges the “Christian Nationalism” movement becoming increasingly prevalent in ongoing legislative opinions and how it poses threat to the American identity and concepts surrounding democracy.

Contrastingly, the sole dissenter on the bench, Justice Greg Cook, challenged the majority opinion, contending that the 1872 state law lacked an explicit definition of a “minor child”. Cook asserted that the interpretation was an extension from the original legislative intent, including frozen embryos. Justice Cook wrote “No Court- anywhere in the country- has reached the conclusion the main opinion reaches”, asserting no court nationwide has reached the conclusion that the majority opinion concluded with on February 16th. [9] The ruling's lack of precedent raises questions for the potential legal consequences, particularly concerning reproductive rights and the regulation and continuation of in vitro fertilization practices within the state entirely. 

The Supreme Court of Alabama's redefinition of in-vitro fertilization embryos as children presents far-reaching, not only regarding the future of under statute's wrongful death lawsuit but broader reproductive rights implications. This ruling will see further implications on reproductive health and prompted further examination amongst law and policy makers regarding the intersection of law, ethics, as the evolving definition of “personhood” continues.

[1] Kim Chun, Warnings of the impact of fertility treatments in Alabama rush in after frozen embryo ruling, Reproductive Health (Feb.21,2024,6:57 AM), a7638e2ddea20df7ca.

[2] Ala.Code § 6-5-391 (1975).

[3] Lepage Vs. The Center for Reproductive Medicine, PC., 2022 U.S. 0515, 0579 (2024).

[4] Id. at 49.

[5] Hamilton Vs. Scott, 97 U.S 1150377 (2018).

[6] Lepage Vs. The Center for Reproductive Medicine, PC., 2022 U.S. 0515, 0579 (2024).

[7] Ala. Const. amend. 930, art. I.

[8] Peter Smith, Bible-quoting Alabama chief justice sparks church-state debate in embryo ruling, THE DENVER POST, February 23, 2024.

[9] Lepage Vs. The Center for Reproductive Medicine, PC., 2022 U.S. 0515, 0579 (2024).



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