Charity Rachelle/The New York Times

The Feb. 16 Alabama Supreme Court ruling on in vitro fertilization complicates medical ethics, reproductive care and scientific research.

April 18, 2024

Cornell Professors Underscore Larger Healthcare, Ethical Consequences of Alabama Supreme Court IVF Ruling

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The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos produced through in-vitro fertilization are considered children on Feb. 16. 

IVF is a process of fertilizing eggs with sperm in a laboratory, resulting in an embryo that can be implanted into a uterus. IVF is offered by fertility clinics as a solution for couples who may not be otherwise able to conceive. The IVF treatment typically produces numerous embryos, and extra embryos are frozen and preserved at a fertility clinic. 

Following the Feb. 16 decision, several Alabama IVF clinics suspended services. On Feb. 26, hundreds of patients and medical providers protested the decision. In response, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill to protect IVF practitioners from potential legal liability. However, the bill did not address the legal status of embryos as persons.  

The case preceding the Feb. 16 decision was filed by three couples who produced healthy children through IVF treatment at the Center of Reproductive Medicine. In December 2020, a patient at the clinic entered the unit where the couples’ extra embryos were kept. The patient opened the tank and dropped the embryos, destroying them. 

The three couples filed a lawsuit against the Center of Reproductive Medicine for negligence and violation of an Alabama state law known as the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. Initially, the case was dismissed at the trial court with the justification that in-vitro embryos were not considered children, and, therefore the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act would not apply.

In response, the couples appealed the decision to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Alabama Supreme Court stated that the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act applied to all unborn children and, thus, the couples could proceed with the lawsuit and seek punitive damages. 

Classifying embryos as persons has a direct effect on medical ethics, according to Prof. Rachel Prentice, science and technology studies. 

By ruling that the Wrongful Death of Minor Act applies to all unborn children, the Alabama Supreme Court granted embryos personhood — the state of being a person — as early as conception.

The Feb. 16 decision may be a consequence of pro-life views that prioritize the personhood and rights of the fetus over the rights of the mother, according to Prentice.

“If you take that side [saying that the fetus has personhood], as anti-abortion forces have, then that reaches into topics like contraception and IVF,” Prentice said. “I think the decision is a logical fallout of the view that the fetus has personhood, and the implications depend a lot on what both states and the federal government decide to do.”

According to Prof. Julia Markovits, philosophy, the decision — while currently only applicable in Alabama — may affect how other states interpret similar cases regarding IVF clinics. 

The Alabama Supreme Court’s decision complicates medical practice and reproductive care, according to Prentice. IVF practices must now consider the possible legal and ethical consequences of procedures, such as freezing and performing genetic testing on embryos. 

According to Prentice, the IVF clinics’ decisions to administer procedures resemble the dilemma doctors face after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the 2022 case that overturned a constitutional right to abortion. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, practitioners must decide whether to provide abortions to individuals who traveled from states where the procedure is illegal. 

According to Markovits, assigning personhood to an embryo at conception may also restrict healthcare for pregnant women. 

“If you’re pregnant, it’s already difficult to figure out how to take care of yourself medically, given that what you do has implications for a future child,” Markovits said. “If you’re considering a developing embryo as a person, that might frame huge constraints on how you can treat your own medical needs while pregnant.” 

In addition, the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision may threaten scientific research. Various research projects in Alabama that aim to improve IVF outcomes and advance developmental biology are at risk. Furthermore, embryos are often used in stem cell research which studies disease evolution, drug testing and damage repair after disease.

Markovits emphasized that an effective way to deal with the Alabama Supreme Court’s Feb. 16 decision is to learn about related cases and their broader consequences in reproductive health and medical care restrictions. 

“If people don’t like the current situation regarding reproductive health or if they’re worried about possible future cases that could further curtail reproductive rights, they should vote and get active,” Prentice said. “The possibility of future legislation or Supreme Court cases that could curtail reproductive rights is high.”

Kaitlyn Lee can be reached at [email protected].