Around the Web

Here are some important news stories involving law and religion from around the web:

Difficult Questions on Unused Embryos

A really fascinating article in the New York Times this morning about the perhaps one million embryos currently in storage in medical facilities across the United States. Most of these embryos have been created through IVF treatments, on which increasing numbers of Americans rely. IVF allows many couples to bring new life into the world and experience the great gift of children. Given the current state of the technology, though, parents who use IVF must typically create several extra embryos in order to increase the odds of conception. This means that many unused embryos remain. The Times  reports that perhaps a million such embryos now exist. What will become of them?

Of course, for many Americans, this question raises important religious issues. The Catholic Church teaches that IVF is immoral in principle, even for married couples, because it violates human dignity and degrades the marital act–though of course children created through IVF are to honored and cherished, just like any others. Evangelical Christians, however, in principle accept the practice for married couples, as do Orthodox Christians. The fate of any unused embryos raises very difficult questions, however. To destroy them seems tantamount to abortion, which both Evangelical and Orthodox Christianity condemn. And all Christians, I think, would have moral concerns about the commodification of embryos that seems the logical outcome of our market society. The Times reports that one California company is already in the business of creating embryos from third parties for would-be parents to purchase, for $12,500, plus a money-back guarantee.

But back to married couples. What should a couple with religious scruples do about extra embryos created by IVF? Some Evangelicals have come up with a good solution. They donate the embryos to other infertile couples. It’s analogous to adoption:

For example, the National Embryo Donation Center in Tennessee, which is endorsed by the Christian Medical Association, places embryos only with heterosexual couples married at least three years — and only after a home study exploring their readiness to be parents, as is required for families adopting a living child.

“We think the embryos deserve the same level of protections as children who are being adopted,” said Stephanie Wood-Moyers, marketing director of the center, where the Watts embryos were stored.

Where does the civil law stand in all this? Unlike many countries, the US does not regulate assisted reproduction technologies, including IVF. And so, as with respect to so many aspects of American life, it becomes a matter of contract law. In my first-year contracts class, in fact, our casebook has two relatively recent cases, one from Massachusetts and one from New York, on the enforceability of parties’ agreements with respect to the disposal of unwanted embryos after IVF. In the Massachusetts case, the court declined to enforce the agreement, in large part because the agreement was ambiguous.

The New York court, by contrast, ruled in favor of enforcement. “Explicit agreements avoid costly litigation in business transactions,” Chief Judge Kaye wrote. She continued:

They are all the more necessary and desirable in personal matters of reproductive choice, where the intangible costs of any litigation are simply incalculable. Advance directives … both minimize misunderstandings and maximize procreative liberty by reserving to the progenitors the authority to make what is in the first instances a quintessentially personal, private decision. Written agreements also provide the certainty needed for effective operation of IVF programs.

Now, you might wonder whether questions as complicated and wrenching for people as these should be handled by contract law, as if they were equivalent to particularly difficult business transactions. (“How do we divide up the inventory if the partnership dissolves?”). Surely there is a more humane way to address these issues. But that seems to be the way our culture is heading. If there’s one thing we still believe in, apparently, it’s liberty of contract–at least when it comes to bearing children.

ECtHR Rules That Ban on Screening IVF Embryos for Genetic Defects Violates European Convention

A chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that Italy’s ban on testing IVF-created embryos for genetic defects violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Italian law permits IVF in limited circumstances, but forbids pre-implantation testing of embryos; on the other hand, Italian law allows women to abort fetuses conceived through natural reproduction if the fetuses  have certain diseases, for example, cystic fibrosis. In the case before the chamber, an Italian couple who were healthy carriers of cystic fibrosis wished to conceive through IVF and to have all embryos tested for the disease before implantation. The chamber ruled that the Italian ban violated article 8’s grant of a right to respect for private and family life. The chamber rejected Italy’s argument that the ban was  justified, among other reasons, to avoid the risk of eugenic abuses. This was a legitimate aim, the chamber said, but the ban on pre-implantation testing seemed “disproportionate,” given that Italy allowed women to abort naturally-conceived fetuses that showed signs of the disease. In effect, Italy was requiring parents in the applicants’ position to conceive through natural means but then abort a fetus that showed signs of cystic fibrosis, a choice that would bring the parents only more anxiety and suffering. Italy’s IVF law is one of Europe’s most restrictive, a result, in part, of the influence of the Catholic Church. Italy has three months to appeal the chamber decision. The case is Costa and Pavan v. Italy (ECtHR, Aug. 28, 2012), available here (follow the link for the PDF).

Waters on Hosanna-Tabor’s Potential Impact on Reproductive Rights

Jessica L. Waters (American University School of Public Affairs) has posted Testing Hosanna-Tabor: The Implications for Pregnancy Discrimination Claims and Employees’ Reproductive Rights. The abstract follows.

In April 2009 Jaretta Hamilton, a married elementary school teacher, was fired after her employer school learned that Hamilton became pregnant prior to her wedding. In October 2010 Christa Dias, an unmarried technology coordinator for two schools, was fired after her employer learned Dias was pregnant via artificial insemination. In 2011, Emily Herx, a married Language Arts teacher who was struggling with infertility, was fired after the school where she had been teaching for seven years learned that Herx was undergoing in vitro fertilization treatments. In the fall of 2011, Cathy Samford, an engaged middle school science teacher and volleyball coach, was fired after her employer discovered Samford’s pregnancy.

Can the employer schools of these four women legally fire them for attempting to become pregnant or actually becoming pregnant? Because the schools in question are religiously-affiliated schools, in the wake of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC the answer may be yes.
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