Alabama Supreme Court rules that frozen embryos are “unborn children”: When does life begin? What does this decision mean for abortion and the sanctity of life?

Alabama Supreme Court rules that frozen embryos are “unborn children”: When does life begin? What does this decision mean for abortion and the sanctity of life? February 22, 2024

The Supreme Court of Alabama ruled this week that the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act applies to frozen embryos. This decision classifies embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) as “unborn children” and thus human lives, including those who were created in laboratories and then frozen.

In response, a large Alabama hospital paused IVF treatments yesterday as health care providers weigh the impact of the ruling.

If embryos were to be legally classified as human beings (a position known as “fetal personhood”), the implications would be seismic across our society:

  • Abortions would be the ending of a human life and thus illegal in principle.
  • Embryos could no longer be destroyed, donated for research, or even stored (except for future implantation in their mother).
  • Unborn children would presumably qualify as “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.” This would grant unborn children all the other rights and privileges accorded US citizens.

It is obviously too soon to know the full consequences of this ruling for the people of Alabama or whether it will impact other states. But it does raise questions that are relevant for those of us who believe life is sacred from conception:

  • How should we view embryos outside the womb?
  • Should they also be considered human and thus sacred?
  • Should couples struggling with infertility turn to IVF? If so, with what guidelines?

Since this is a very large and complex issue, I have written a white paper for our website that examines these and other questions in some depth. The paper originated with work I have done over the years as Resident Scholar for Ethics with a major not-for-profit healthcare system. I’ll summarize the paper as it relates to the foundational issue before us today.

Fertilization or implantation?

Does life begin when the sperm fertilizes the egg or when the fertilized egg is implanted in the mother’s womb?

The position that life begins at implantation would view an embryo created through IVF as a “zygote” rather than a person, with these consequences:

  • It could be frozen for possible use in the future.
  • A large number of zygotes could be created in the lab and then subjected to testing (known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis or PGD) to determine which are most viable before implantation, with the others frozen or discarded.
  • It could be used ethically to harvest stem cells and for other research and pharmaceutical purposes.

The position that life begins at fertilization views an embryo created through IVF as a human, the position taken by the Alabama Supreme Court. It would mean:

  • An embryo created through IVF must not be the subject of experiments, stem cell harvesting, or any other procedure we would not ethically conduct on any other human.
  • IVF could be used only to create embryos for implantation and would not subject them to PGD.

For reasons I explain in detail in my website paper, I agree with the large number of embryologists and ethicists who believe life begins at fertilization. Accordingly, I believe that the Alabama Supreme Court made the right decision from an ethical perspective. And I support the conclusions noted above regarding the value and status of embryos created through IVF.

“Recognize to whom you owe the fact that you exist”

What does today’s conversation say to those of us who are not making IVF decisions or affected directly by them? At the very least, we are reminded that each of us, however we were conceived, is “fearfully and wonderfully made” by our Maker (Psalm 139:14).

To this end, let’s close with these reflections by St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390):

Recognize to whom you owe the fact that you exist, that you breathe, that you understand, that you are wise, and, above all, that you know God and hope for the kingdom of heaven and the vision of glory, now darkly as in a mirror but then with greater fullness and purity. You have been made a son of God, co-heir with Christ.

Where did you get all this, and from whom?

Let me turn to what is of less importance: the visible world around us. What benefactor enabled you to look out upon the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order that are theirs, like the music of a harp? Who has blessed you with rain, with the art of husbandry, with different kinds of food, with the arts, with houses, with laws, with states, with a life of humanity and culture, with friendship and the easy familiarity of kinship?

He concludes:

Brethren and friends, let us never allow ourselves to misuse what has been given us by God’s gift.

St. Gregory is right: God views your life as his providential, gracious, and unique gift.

How will this fact change your day?

NOTE: The unfortunate truth about life is that you’re either in a storm right now, you’ve just come out of one, or you’re about to head into one. But no matter where you are, Jesus cares about what you’re going through. In A Great Calm, a devotional written by my wife Janet Denison, you will be encouraged no matter the storms that rage around you or before you. Please request your copy of A Great Calm today.

Thursday news to know

Quote for the day

“Each of you has a personal vocation which God has given you for your own joy and sanctity. When a person is conquered by the fire of his gaze, no sacrifice seems too great to follow him and give him the best of ourselves.” —Pope Benedict XVI

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