In re Marriage of Witten, decided by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2003, held that neither Tamera nor Arthur (Trip) Witten could use or destroy several cryopreserved preembryos created during their marriage using in vitro fertilization (IVF), unless the former couple could reach a mutual agreement. Tamera and Trip Witten, unable to conceive conventionally during their marriage, had attempted to start a family together using IVF at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha, Nebraska. When Trip sought to dissolve the marriage in April 2002, following several unsuccessful IVF attempts, seventeen of their preembryos were in storage at UNMC. The former couple disagreed about what should happen to the preembryos and asked the court for a resolution as part of the marital dissolution action. The high court of Iowa’s decision to restrict both individuals from using the cryopreserved preembryos without the other person’s consent reflected a belief that Tamera and Trip shared equal decision-making authority over the preembryos.
In A.Z. v. B.Z. (2000), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Boston, Massachusetts, affirmed a lower courtÕs decision, ruling that contracts that require a party to become a parent against his or her will are unenforceable and contrary to public policy. The case centered around A.Z. and B.Z., a divorced couple who had previously used in vitro fertilization (IVF) to start a family together during their marriage and had several preembryos cryopreserved as part of the process. While undertaking IVF, the couple signed multiple consent forms requiring them to decide what should happen to the cryopreserved preembryos in the event of certain listed contingencies, such as death or separation of the couple. The couple indicated their preference that B.Z., A.Z.Õs now former wife, could use the cryopreserved preembryos if the couple later separated. When their relationship deteriorated, however, A.Z. objected to B.Z.Õs attempt to have additional children using the preembryos, leading to a lengthy legal battle. The court case A.Z. v. B.Z. established Massachusetts public policy that people should not be forced to become a parent against their will, even if they previously agreed to provide their genetic material for reproduction.
In the 2008 court case In the Matter of the Marriage of Dahl and Angle, the Court of Appeals of Oregon upheld a written in vitro fertilization (IVF) consent form signed by Laura and Darrell Angle, who had each contributed their genetic material to the creation of several preembryos during their marriage. Its decision followed the general framework for resolving such disputes provided by the Supreme Court of Tennessee in Davis v. Davis in 1992, which was subsequently followed by many courts across the US. The decision by the Court of Appeals of Oregon reinforced the idea that agreements that reflect the couple's intent at the time of undertaking IVF should be upheld, regardless of a later change of heart.
In the case Randy M. Roman v. Augusta N. Roman (2006), the Court of Appeals of Texas followed courts in other states and upheld the validity and enforceability of in vitro fertilization (IVF) consent agreements. The Romans, a divorced couple, each sought different outcomes for their cryopreserved preembryos created during their marriage. Randy Roman sought to have them destroyed, and Augusta Roman sought to implant them in an attempt to have biological children. The Texas court, citing several related cases, declared that the written IVF consent form the Romans had signed would govern the outcome of the cryopreserved preembryos.
The 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade was a significant event in the story of fetal personhood—the story of whether embryos and fetuses are legal persons. Roe legalized abortion care in the United States (US). However, the story of fetal personhood began long before the 1970s. People have been talking about embryos, fetuses, and their status in science, the law, and society for centuries. I studied the history of fetal personhood in the United States, tracing its origins from Ancient Rome and Medieval England to its first appearance in a US courtroom in 1884 and then to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973.
In Maureen Kass v. Steven Kass (1998), the Court of Appeals of New York in Albany, New York, ruled that the state should generally consider IVF consent forms signed by participants in an in vitro fertilization (IVF) program valid, binding, and enforceable in the event of a dispute. The court indicated that decisions regarding the handling of cryopreserved pre-zygotes, often called preembryos, contained within these consent forms should be upheld. Although Steven and Maureen Kass had signed IVF consent forms agreeing to donate unused preembryos to research, during their divorce Maureen argued for custody of the preembryos. The New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Steven Kass and concluded that the informed consent forms signed by the former couple had clearly manifested the coupleÕs mutual intent to donate any preembryos to research in the event of a dispute.
In 2015, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) partnered with The Open University to produce the three-part documentary series, Countdown to Life: The Extraordinary Making of You. Michael Mosley, a British television producer and journalist, hosts the documentary. Along with narrating animated scenes of a growing fetus in the womb, Mosley meets with individuals around the world who experienced mutations that can arise in the womb. Introduced over the course of the three episodes, several people share their personal stories of how their bodies did not develop correctly prior to birth. Throughout the documentary, animations of fetal development and individuals’ stories about their own birth defects transition back and forth to show how a fetus develops. Countdown to Life: The Extraordinary Making of You informed the public of what happens to the fetus at the point of conception to the point of birth at forty weeks.
Frederik Ruysch's cabinet of curiosities, commonly referred to simply as the Cabinet, was a museum Ruysch created in the Netherlands in the late 160ss. The Cabinet filled a series of small houses that Ruysch rented in Amsterdam and contained over 2,000 specimens, including preserved fetuses and infants. The collection remained in Amsterdam until it was purchased by Tsar Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 and transferred to St. Petersburg, Russia. Similar to Gunther von Hagens' twenty-first century Body Worlds exhibition, which presents bodies preserved through plastination, the Cabinet was open to both medical professionals and laypeople. The pieces in the Cabinet were life-like and aesthetically pleasing, making them valuable education tools for prenatal and infant anatomy as well as an effective way of garnering public interest in anatomy.
In the case York v. Jones (1989), the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia was one of the first US courts to address a dispute over a cryopreserved preembryo. Steven York and Risa Adler-York (the Yorks), a married couple, provided their gametes to doctors who created the preembryo, which the court referred to as a pre-zygote, as part of an in vitro fertilization (IVF) program at the Howard and Georgeanna Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine (Jones Institute) in Norfolk, Virginia. The couple sued when the doctors at the Jones Institute refused to release the preembryo to the Yorks for use at a different IVF clinic. The Virginia district court denied the Jones Institute's attempt to have the York v. Jones case dismissed, and instead upheld the Yorks' right to move forward with their lawsuit. The York v. Jones decision had important implications for future disputes over cryopreserved preembryos because it treated the Yorks' cryopreserved preembryo as legal property over which the Yorks retained decision-making authority.
In Davis v. Davis (1992), the Supreme Court of Tennessee decided a dispute over cryopreserved preembryos in favor of Junior Lewis Davis, who sought to have the preembryos destroyed over the objections of his former wife, Mary Sue Davis. The decision in Davis, although not binding in other states, suggested a framework for resolving similar disputes in the US. That framework established that courts should follow the wishes of those who contribute their sperm and egg cells, or gamete providers, to create preembryos. In the event of a dispute, courts should enforce any prior agreement between the gamete providers and in the absence of such an agreement, the court should weigh the interests of the parties, ordinarily ruling in favor of the party who wishes to avoid procreation.