An Ohio couple are continuing their legal fight to have their lost embryos declared as having the same legal status as people.
Wendy and Rick Penniman's three embryos were among 4000 left unviable when the temperature in a storage tank rose to unacceptable levels. Some 950 families were affected by the freezer malfunction at the University Hospital Ahuja Medical Centre, Ohio, in March 2018 (see BioNews 941).
'The Pennimans feel strongly about this,' said their lawyer Bruce Taubman. 'A lot of the plaintiffs considered the eggs and embryos to be part of their families.'
The Pennimans want a court declaration that 'the life of a person begins at the moment of conception,' so 'the legal status of an embryo is that of a person'. They are appealing the decision of Judge Stuart Friedman of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, who dismissed their first claim in May 2018. Friedman reasoned that an embryo did not warrant the same legal status as a child, saying:
'The parents may believe that the embryos they created are already persons, but that is a matter of faith or of their personal beliefs, not of science and not of law… They are of course entitled to mourn the loss of this potential, and even to feel the anguish of a parent who has lost a child, however, the court can deal only with rights and obligations that the law recognizes, not with emotions, feelings or beliefs of individuals.'
All the families who lost embryos or eggs have been offered compensation, but the Pennimans argue that their embryos were treated as property, when they should have been treated as patients of the hospital. Lawyers acting for the hospital argued that frozen embryos are property under Ohio law and pointed out that a consent form signed by the Pennimans describes the embryos as 'the sole property' of Wendy and Rick Penniman.
Taubman admits that the families will be entitled to far more compensation if the embryos were declared people. In a wrongful death claim, he said, 'the damages are much more severe... There is no cap on damages'.
'What we've done here is allowed the court of appeals to find a way to confirm what most Americans want the law to be: that life begins at conception,' Taubman told Cleveland.com. 'I think that's the prevailing opinion in this country.'