Frozen embryos: the product of acting before we think

A recent article in the LA Times about a current divorce case in which there is dispute about what will happen to five frozen embryos created by the couple reminds us that our society is conflicted about what to think about cryopreserved embryos. This is an example of how technology and its ability to enable us to do whatever we desire to do gets ahead of our thinking through what we are doing.

Should these embryos be treated as children that the parents have a duty to care for and protect or are they property to be divided along with other assets in the divorce. In this case the woman wants custody/possession of the embryos so she can attempt with the help of a surrogate to have at least one of them be born for her to raise as her biological child, but the man says that he does not want to be forced to be a parent against his will. It would seem that respecting the lives of the embryos and wanting to bring them to birth would have the higher moral ground, but there are serious moral concerns about the use of a surrogate mother’s womb as a commodity and concerns about a mother who chose to delay having children by having four abortions and whether wanting to have a child now at age 46 is really for the benefit of the child or of the mother. The father is concerned about being forced into being a parent, but didn’t he take on the role of parent voluntarily when he was a part of the decision to create the embryos in the first place?

The article notes some cases that suggest that the courts are confused about how to treat these embryos. In a case in Tennessee the court said in 1992 that frozen embryos were neither property nor persons, but something the courts should treat with special respect, and then sided with the party that wanted to destroy the embryos. A court in Texas decided to treat embryos as assets and gave them to a 2 year old son of a couple who had been killed so he could decide when he was 18 what to do with them. A lawyer specializing in this area noted that couples who have created excess embryos commonly are unable to decide what to do and end up paying for storage indefinitely even when they know they will not be implanting the embryos they have created.

All of this illustrates the need for us to think about the ethical implications of technology before doing it. We should not do things just because they are technically feasible and fulfill a desire. The actions that we take have moral value and consequences. We need to think about we are doing before we act and put ourselves in a situation in which we find it difficult to know what is right, let alone do what is right.

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