CBS, Sunday 5 March 2017
US spin-off legal drama 'The Good Fight' delivers a brief storyline representing an ovarian cancer survivor whose only chance of genetic connection to a child is to gain back custody of her previously donated eggs.
For those unfamiliar with this legal drama, it arose like a phoenix from the ashes of 'The Good Wife', a US legal and political series that ran for seven series from 2009 – 2016. A few familiar characters are joined by new ones in the show, broadly similar to its predecessor in its storytelling – the usual character building, and mix of single episode stories with longer term plot arcs.
A recent episode found the law firm representing a woman who had donated her eggs eight years earlier to a couple via a clinic, in return for $20,000. Fortunately for her, the same law firm wrote a clause into the original agreement stipulating that if not used within five years, ownership of the eggs ('henceforth known as property') reverts back to the donor.
So far so positive, especially as the client wanting her eggs back has recently survived cancer, and those eggs represent her only chance of achieving a genetic connection to the child that she now wishes to have.
Difficulties arise when it's discovered the original clinic closed down and has re-opened with a new name, albeit on the same site and under the same clinical director, who claims that all previous unused eggs were discarded and destroyed. Under threat of a personal lawsuit, the director quickly reveals that in fact the 12 donated eggs were sent off to a research laboratory. There, the legal team finds that 11 of the eggs have truly been discarded with just one remaining. But this last egg has been fertilised and is intended to be used as part of mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), via the technique of pronuclear transfer.
So begins a confusing court battle, and I use the word confusing because the judge himself finds this matter complicated, the person I was watching the programme with kept asking me to pause and explain what was going on, and the lawyers themselves were struggling to find easy metaphors to explain the issue at hand. Essentially: who is the rightful owner of the embryo? The egg came from the client, but the sperm came from the intending father, and the commissioning couple had paid their money for treatment in good faith.
It was indeed complicated to follow, with talk of eggs one second and in the next breath suddenly an embryo, and then the introduction of a second egg/embryo. Often I felt the programme writers figured that if they speed up the talking and pump up the music, it would make viewers less bothered about truly understanding what was happening. Instead, we would get swept up in the drama and just want to know the result.
One of the issues I had with the original series is that the main lawyer characters and their firm always seemed to win their cases, even when the odds were hugely stacked against them. At times, even when they'd actually lost the case, suddenly a spark, a brainwave, an appeal and a win! Always enjoyable and cleverly done, but it niggled me.
Suffice to say, our protagonist legal team lost and the couple were awarded judgment as the legal owners of the embryo, but (spoiler alert), in the dying minutes... a brainwave from somewhere, everyone is called back into the courtroom and the decision is reversed. It is revealed that the intended parents planned to travel to the UK for MRT, where pronuclear transfer was recently approved (see BioNews 893), but after the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was contacted and advised of their plans, authorisation for treatment was denied because the original eggs had been sold for $20,000. This is greater than the £750 limit that the HFEA permits. Gavel banged, and court dismissed.
Was it truly a happy ending? Perhaps of a kind: the original egg donor has her (single) chance of a genetic connection. Issues around the intending father's sperm were not resolved however; while he consented to treatment with his wife, the ending finds him distinctly unhappy to be the donor in this new scenario. The welfare of the child springs to mind given the ferocity of his reaction.
It's always good to see fertility storylines embedded in mainstream or popular shows; even when the degree of believability can be debated. Anything that gets people talking and brings issues out of the shadows and into people's awareness is positive. For me as a counsellor, these scenarios make it even clearer why the provision of implications counselling is so important for both donors and intended parents, and why counselling must be made mandatory in every situation related to gamete donation and use.