Frozen Out

embryos.jpgHave you been keeping an eye on the news recently? If so, you won’t have failed to come across the tale of one Natallie Evans. This is a terrible story. It seems that, in the throes of ovarian cancer in 2001, she and then-partner Howard Johnston decided to fertilise and store a selection of her ova, with the presumed intention of implanting them at a later stage. Now that her ovaries have been removed, she is very keen to use these embryos to bear children. But here’s the rub: her relationship with Johnston has since ended, and he’s gone and put the kybosh on the whole thing.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot since I read it. Obviously, the situation is very difficult for those involved, particularly Evans. But it also illustrates an interesting moral quandary.

On the surface of it, it looks like a no brainer. It certainly appears at first glance as if Johnston is being callous and vindictive in denying his erstwhile partner her only chance of being a natural mother. Evans’s supporters claim that Johnston’s agreement to fertilise the eggs represents his giving consent that they could be implanted at any point in the future, regardless of circumstances.

Also, the pro-life crowd will say that it is morally indefensible for the embryos not to be implanted, since they are already fertilised and ready to become children (if they aren’t already). Therefore, Johnston ought to allow them to realise their potential (actual?) humanity despite not wanting anything to do with them himself.

The ‘not wanting anything to do with them’ is problematic, though. Evans might argue that her offspring would never have anything to do with their natural father, i.e. that Johnston would not be affected by the decision to use the embryos. Sadly, as I understand it, children have the right to know who their natural parents are, and to contact them.

Johnston might argue that his consent to use the embryos was given on the understanding that his relationship with Evans would continue. He put it quite well himself: if he wanted to father children with another woman but found he was infertile, he would hardly expect Evans to agree to him using her fertilised eggs to have children with this new partner. But it seems that Evans is suggesting she be allowed to do something which is morally similar, if not identical.

Anyway, the upshot is that she’s lost her appeal at the European Court of Human rights, and the embryos will be destroyed. This is very sad, although I’m not sure that Johnston’s decision is entirely as unreasonable as the news stories would have us believe.

Science is a wonderful thing, but it opens up all sorts of moral minefields. Oh, for the days when we never had to think about this sort of thing.

Bit of a heavy post today. An interesting case, though.

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2 Comments on “Frozen Out”

  1. Hannah Says:

    Isaac Asimov once said “the saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”. Science tells us what is possible, but it doesn’t tell us what is right. There has to be some kind of moral or ethical framework for it, or we’re going to end up in a very nasty mess.

  2. Doug Says:

    Quite so. The problem is getting people to agree on such a framework.

    It seems to me that there is substantial agreement among the scientific community about the form science should take. The process of science will undoubtedly yield disagreements about the content, but the aim of science seems to be to try to resolve these.

    However, there seems to be very little consensus about what one ought and ought not to do with science. Worse, it is difficult to see how one might arrive at a consensus.


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