Bay Area couple fights for their frozen embryos

Two couples who donated the embryos they used are suing each other for control of two remaining frozen embryos.

April 9, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Two lawsuits and two families are fighting over the custody of two frozen embryos. At the center of the suits is the same debate if embryos are property or people.

Two frozen embryos are at the center of a bitter custody suit. A Pleasanton couple donated four embryos to another couple in Missouri with the stipulation that any un-used embryos would be returned in a year. The year is up, the Missouri mom just had twins, and there are two embryos left. The California couple is suing to get them back. The McLaughlins refuse to give them up.

"We started this with the intention of my husband and I giving birth, or at least having the opportunity to give birth, to those four children," says Jennifer McLaughlin, the mother of the adopted embryos.

The McLaughlins consider the embryos children, not property and they want their twin daughters to have siblings with the same genetic make-up. They're counter suing to retain custody of the embryos.

"In my opinion, they are ethically not the same as children, they are not biologically the same as children," says David Magnus director of Stanford's Center for Biomedical Ethics.

The lawsuits have launched an ethical grenade into a controversial arena -- are embryos property or people?

"You've got a couple who believes that when they had custody of these embryos for a period of time and for a year, that gave them essentially parental rights over those embryos. While you've got another couple who have a genetic relationship and a contract that says at the end of a year we get these embryos back," says Magnus.

"I would put my money on the California couple," says Hank Greely, a professor at the Stanford Law School.

Greely says regardless of the definition of an embryo, the fact remains the California couple had a contract.

"It's hard for me to see what argument the Missouri couple has. 'Yes, we didn't use them within a year, but we really want them.' There are a lot of things in contract deals where one side or the other really wants something. That doesn't mean you're entitled to it," says Greely.

Greely expects a ruling will take some time, but for now the embryos will remain at the Reproductive Science Center in San Ramon.


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