The decision of a Tennessee judge to award a divorced couple's seven frozen embryos to the woman, giving her the right to have a "test tube" baby against her ex-husband's wishes, will not negatively affect the University of Utah's embryology program, Utah specialists said Friday.
However, they said the judge's declaration that frozen embryos are "human life" has opened a Pandora's box of ethical questions that will challenge doctors, lawyers, ethicists and average people for years."It's a very sweeping decision that he (the judge) has made, and it isn't clear that everyone will perceive all the implications of that decision," said Dr. Jay Jacobson, a recent visiting scholar at the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.
The decision made Thursday by Blount County Circuit Judge W. Dale Young in Maryville, Tenn., is the first to accord the protection of human life to fertilized eggs created through the in-vitro process.
The Davis embryos were created through the in-vitro fertilization program at a Knoxville fertility center in 1988 before the couple decided to divorce. The eggs are still at the center in frozen storage.
Young ruled that the couple had produced "human beings," and awarded temporary custody of them to Mary Sue Davis so that she can implant them into her womb.
Jacobson, currently chief of the Division on Medical Ethics, departments of internal medicine at LDS Hospital and the University of Utah Medical Center, finds the judge's declaration particularly interesting.
"I don't think there would be much question that they (the embryos) would represent life in the same way that plant cells are life," he said. "But whether they are `human life' is a very interesting question because they don't have the characteristics that we generally think of as human. They don't have the human shape, for example, and haven't achieved human capabilities. They are an example of the maximization of potential with the minimum amount of human characteristics."
Jacobson said that since the judge ruled that the embryos are "human," the question that arises is, "What are the rights of these human lives?"
"We have great reverence for life in our country and we don't take away life lightly," Jacobson stressed. "The judge says she (Davis) has a right to a test tube baby. But one wonders when the judge declares them to be `human life,' is he not then viewing that as an obligation on the part of the mother to continue that human life.
"By declaring these human lives, is there in fact an obligation on the part of anyone to see this potential developed?"
Jacobson said many other ethical questions have arisen from the judge's decision - questions that will be probed by the Task Force on Womens' Health Issues, recently established by the Utah Medical association.
Dr. John C. Nelson, UMA president, said that along with studying the UMA's abortion position, task force members will look carefully at the ethical implications of the Davis decision.
"Technically, if there was a fertilized egg, one could argue that if you destroyed it, you have performed an abortion," Nelson said. "But as yet we do not know what ramifications this decision will have.
"I think its up in the air, but the smart thing to do is let the dust settle and see what happens. I would hope this will not have a deleterious effect on further research. I hope it will not affect making this procedure available to other people who need it."
Dr. Ronald L. Urry, a professor of surgery and obstetrics/gynecology, who works with the U. fertility program, is certain that Young's decision won't negatively affect the local program.
"From the beginning of our frozen embryo program we've attempted to address the issues that they apparently didn't address in Tennessee," he said.
Urry said couples, prospectively - before any egg is frozen - are required to sign a legal, multipage consent form that forces them to decide what would happen to their frozen embryos under various scenarios such as death, divorce, etc.
The center's attorneys are also writing a new consent form that will enable an infertile couple to "adopt" the frozen embryos of another couple who don't want or need them. U. specialists encourage the donation or adoption of unused frozen embryos.
Urry said U. fertility specialists have been using cryo-preservation for about 18 months, and have a 15 to 20 percent success rate. At least one, and likely two, babies have been produced from eggs that have been fertilized with the father's sperm outside the body, frozen, thawed and placed in the mothers' uterus during in-vitro fertilization.
-Does woman have obligation to attempt a pregnancy with each frozen embryo?
-If woman refuses to allow frozen embryo to develop, does that constitute abuse?
-If an embryo is destroyed, does that constitute an abortion?
-If woman's death is imminent, should doctors take effort to remove an embryo and harvest it outside the mother's body?
-Who has the obligation to see that life goes on?
-If frozen embryos thaw and spoil, is the laboratory scientist guilty of homicide?
-If mother decides to donate embryos, would they then be considered "property" instead of "human life"?
-What does acknowledgment of embryos as "human life" portend for the abortion issue in general?