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The Frozen Embryo Case: Beyond Controlling One's Body

By Carolyn Gargaro

The most often heard argument from the pro-choice camp is that abortion is a matter of a woman controlling what goes on with her body. The argument goes on to explain that no government or person has a right to tell a woman what to do with her body, and thus, no one, including the government, has a right to outlaw abortion. Pro-choice advocates claim that the fetus resides within the woman's body, and as such, the elimination of the fetus falls under a woman's right to do what she wants with her own body.

This rationale, however, doesn't flow with an October 1998 ruling made in a New Jersey case involving frozen embryos.

A married couple, having trouble conceiving a child, underwent in vitro fertilization (IVF). In this procedure, the woman's ovaries are stimulated to release eggs, which are surgically removed and fertilized in a petri dish by her husband's sperm. The cells of the fertilized egg begin to multiply and an embryo develops, which is then implanted in the mother's uterus. To those who believe that life begins at conception, this embryo represents a genetically individual human being.

The fertilization of multiple eggs is common in IVF, and the "extra" embryos are preserved for future possible use by a freezing procedure called cryo-preservation. Such frozen embryos were at the center of this particular dispute. After undergoing IVF, the woman discovered that she was pregnant by natural intercourse, and she and her husband decided to freeze the embryos for possible future use. After their child was born, the marriage broke up, and the woman wanted the embryos destroyed because she did not want to become a mother to any of the embryos and to have "her DNA out there". The father wanted the embryos preserved to possibly have them implanted in another woman or to give them to some other childless couple.

The case was taken to court, and Judge Lee Laskin ruled that the frozen embryos were to be destroyed because the wife has a "right not to become a mother". He dismissed the husband's claim that the embryos were living entities and stated that he would not spend time addressing this "so-called right to life argument." Laskin went on to state that he had no hesitation "in ruling that the frozen embryos are not living entities." Laskin failed to provide any scientific reason for this judgment. Pro-choice advocates in New Jersey supported the judge's decision and hailed this as a ruling that upheld a woman's "reproductive freedom."

Obviously, there are many ethical questions regarding the frozen embryos. To those who are pro-life, these embryos are more than merely experimental material, but are individual human beings entitled to the most basic right of all - the right to life. Destroying the embryos is considered destroying human life at its earliest stages. Obviously, those who do not believe in the human individuality of embryos will disagree, but the thought of little frozen human individuals makes many people feel uncomfortable. Even some people who are pro-choice and believe that frozen embryos are not yet individuals have reservations about frozen embryos. As one pro-choice friend said to me regarding this issue, "It just seems....there is something wrong with having "human seeds" frozen.. those are potential people...."

However, the immediate question that comes to my mind is, why does the woman have more rights over the embryos than the husband? No one is asking her to give birth or to take care of the babies - yet she suddenly has sole rights over the embryos, and that includes the right to destroy them. According to pro-choice advocates, the right to destroy your own offspring is because the embryo/fetus resides within the mother's body, and the elimination of the embryo/fetus falls under a woman's "right" to do what she wants with "her body."

How are frozen embryos part of "her body"? The embryos are no more hers than the husband's but now it seems that abortion rights extend past one's body to the "right not to become a parent". So which is it? Is abortion a matter of a woman controlling her own body or a matter of not wanting to become a mother? According to the frozen embryo case, it isn't a matter of it being a part of the woman's body - it is a matter of "not wanting to become a biological parent." If the case was reversed and it was the man who wanted the embryos destroyed and the woman who wanted them preserved, would the judge still determine that he has a right "not to become a father" and that the embryos could be destroyed against the wishes of the woman? I doubt it. What if a man refused to pay child support because he "didn't want to become a father"? What if he argued that the woman gave birth against his wishes and his desire not to become a father made him exempt from paying child support? Would pro-choice women agree that a man has the right not to become a father? If so, how would they suggest he exercise that right?

Pro-choice advocates and Laskin dismissed the "so-called right to life argument" while utilizing a "so-called right to an abortion argument" to justify the woman having sole rights over embryos which are half her husband's and not residing in her body. As the pro-choice advocates in New Jersey celebrated this ruling "in favor of a woman's reproductive freedom" I had to wonder how they could so blatantly ignore the fact that they just admitted that abortion rights are not just a matter of "controlling one's own body" as they so claim. Will they be celebrating if men start asserting their "right not to become a father"? Or has the desperate desire for abortion-on-demand, no matter what the circumstance, clouded their thinking?

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This article copyright © 1999 by Carolyn Gargaro and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.

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