Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What Happens to Cryopreserved Embryos After A Divorce?

In happier times, the Stratfords, Jude and Jayane, did what an increasing number of marital couples are doing; they froze one of Jayane's eggs that had been fertilized by Jude's sperm; i.e. they cryopreserved an embryo.  When the dust settled in their subsequent St. Clair County divorce proceeding, the now-divorced couple realized they had forgotten to address their frozen embryo in the consent judgment of divorce.

Jude went back to the family court seeking permission to allow an anonymous couple to utilize the single fertilized and frozen egg.  Jayane objected, asserting her desire to donate the embryos for research.

After carefully balancing the respective interests of the parties following an evidentiary hearing, St. Clair County Family Court Judge Elwood Brown concluded that Jude held a "superior interest" in the embryo, and promulgated a thoroughly-researched opinion and order on this ground-breaking topic that has no precedent in Michigan's statutory or common law.

Judge Brown ruled that: "[Father] may provide for the embryo to be donated anonymously by the fertility clinic for the purpose of adoption by another willing couple."  Jayane appealed Brown's ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The MCOA reversed the family court in an unpublished and thus non-binding per curiam decision, holding that the lower court erred by obligating the fertility clinic, not a party to the Statford divorce, and further held that the family court order was too vague relative to Father's right/duty to donate the fertilized egg to another "willing couple".

The appellate court was particularly troubled by the lack of a contract between the divorced parties and the fertility clinic.  Addressing the family court's creation of duties to a non-party, the MCOA stated:

Aside from the permissive nature of the order, the order imposed upon the clinic several obligations that the clinic may be unwilling to accept or unable to perform.  For example, the record does not indicate whether the clinic is able to make the embryo available for adoption.  Similarly, the record contains nothing to demonstrate that the clinic is willing or able to accept the order’s apparent restriction that the embryo be adopted only by a willing couple.  In addition, the record does not identify who, if anyone, is currently paying for any of the clinic’s costs arising from cryogenic preservation until a “willing couple” is available for adoption.  We are further left to assume from this record that there is preservation in fact, viability, and, non-abandonment of the embryo.  Moreoever, in the event plaintiff opts not to donate the embryo, the record does not indicate whether the clinic is willing or able to continue to preserve the embryo indefinitely.

In so ruling, the MCOA compared the Statford's circumstances with an earlier "zygote" case from 1999, Bohn v Ann Arbor Fertility Clinic, which involved a similar family court "custody" dispute, along with a companion "breach of contract" cause of action.

In each case, the Court of Appeals focused on the agreement, or lack thereof, between the biological donors and the fertility clinic.  In deciding each case, the MCOA emphasized the poor quality of the lower court record relative to upholding the plaintiff's claims or, in the Stratford case, the lower court's rationale.

Nor did the Stratford panel endorse the lower court's "balance of interests test", ruling that such was within the purview of the legislature and not the courts.  We here at the Law Blogger heartily agree.

Stay tuned to see whether either party applies for leave to further appeal or whether there will be additional proceedings in the family court.

Also stay tuned to see whether our state legislature passes legislation to address the proprietary rights of zygotes, oocytes, and other pre-embryonic cells.