Clinics face legal, ethical issues alone
By Nancy Parello, Trenton Bureau, The Record,
NJ, August 15, 2001
While reproductive technology soars ahead, the state Legislature
has remained silent on the serious ethical issues that arise
when couples use science to help create babies.
The New Jersey Supreme Court began to provide some answers
to these questions in a ruling released Tuesday that bars
a divorced father from having frozen embryos implanted in
But plenty of questions remain.
What should clinics do with “abandoned” embryos?
How long should they hold them before they are discarded?
Should they be given to universities for research? Should
they be donated to infertile couples? Should couples be
forced to grapple with these issues before treatment?
A bill that would begin to address these issues has languished
in the state Legislature. As a result, clinics have been
left on their own to wade through the minefield of ethical
and legal issues.
Melissa Brisman, a Montvale attorney who specializes in
reproductive law, said most clinics are addressing the issue
with consent forms that couples must sign before they start
Often, these forms deal with what would happen in case
of death or divorce, Brisman said.
“Clinics have asked people to designate one person
who would be in charge of embryos upon divorce or death’”
Brisman said. “That’s a relatively recent phenomenon.”
At Reproductive Medicine Associates, which has offices
in Englewood and Morristown, couples go through an “extensive
consent” process that attempts to deal with all potential
situations, said Michael Slowey, an Englewood doctor who
specializes in infertility.
Couples can choose to destroy or store the embryos or donate
them to research, he said. But, he added, the consent form
“means very little” when challenged in court.
“There have been a number of cases where it’s
very clearly laid out what is supposed to happen, yet somebody
changes their mind and the judges rule very differently
than what consent calls for,” he said.
Arie Birkenfeld, an infertility doctor at the Diamond Institute
for Infertility and Menopause in Milburn, said his clinic
also provides consent forms, but they deal only with what
a couple wishes to do with embryos once treatment is completed.
The agreements do not address the issues of a spouse’s
death or divorce.
The clinic offers patients three choices: discard embryos,
donate them to another couple, or keep them frozen. Most
people, Birkenfeld said, opt to store them.
“It’s a very, very complex issue,” Birkenfeld
said. “We’ve been freezing embryos for more
than 10 years and some of these issues are just evolving.
We are handling a technology which is, by far, ahead of
legislation. It is our responsibility to think ahead now.
But I don’t think that we as physicians can do this
In a Supreme Court case, the couple, named in court papers
as J.B. and M.B., had signed a consent form with the Cooper
Center for In Vitro Fertilization in Burlington County.
The agreement said the biological parents would relinquish
all rights to the embryos in the event of divorce, unless
a court ordered otherwise.
Cooper Health System spokeswoman Brenda Hecker refused
to discuss any changes in contracts between the center and
infertility patients since the suit was brought in 1997.
She said she was not allowed to discuss patient contracts
because they are “private.”
Infertility experts say it is unusual for contracts to
call for the rights to revert to the clinic. Brisman noted
that clinics are trying to avoid being left with abandoned
embryos, unable to get estranged couples to take responsibility
for them, and afraid that if they discard them they will
Brisman said it’s time for lawmakers to develop public
policy on the issue. “We need some sort of regulation
to what people can expect in advance,” she said. “The
legal aspects have not caught up with the technology. The
law is murky.”
Assemblyman Neil Cohen, D-Union, several years ago introduced
a bill that would require all couples to sign a standard,
binding agreement that deals with all issues, including
However, he said lawmakers have been reluctant to take
up the debate, partly because they were waiting to see how
the Supreme Court would rule in the case of the divorced
couple. They’re also worried about entering what inevitably
turns into a heated argument over abortion.
Abortion foes oppose discarding embryos or using them for
research. They maintain that human life begins at conception
and so the embryos should be protected and “adopted”
by other infertile couples.
Still, Cohen said, it’s time for lawmakers to act.