Embryos in legal limbo
Australian Dr. Linda Mohr entered the raging international debate about the legal and moral aspects of freezing human embryos for later use in child bearing last May with an appeal to leading test-tube-birth scientists at an international seminar in Helsinki: “I plead with society to take up the legal and ethical questions. If the parents die, or they don’t want their embryos, are they my responsibility? Can an embryo inherit things?” Last week those questions took on a new urgency with the disclosure that a wealthy Los Angeles couple, Mario and Elsa Rios, died in a plane crash in Chile last year—leaving two fertilized embryos “orphaned” in liquid nitrogen in Mohr’s clinic at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Medical Centre. They are destined to remain frozen until the government devises a policy on their future.
The clinic’s in vitro (in glass) fertilization unit—it now contains 250 frozen embryos—was responsible for the birth in March of Zoe Leyland, the first baby to come into the world from a frozen embryo. A similar birth is due in August. The Rioses were the last non-Australians permitted to participate in Monash University’s in vitro fertilization program at Queen Victoria. Under the program women who had experienced reproductive difficulties have given birth to a total of 57 girls and 60 boys since 1981 through a process in which an egg fertilized outside the body is implanted in the womb. That process does not involve freezing, but Queen Victoria researchers were at the same time freezing unused fertilized eggs for possible later implantation.
After Elsa Rios’s 10-year-old daughter died in a mysterious shooting incident in 1978, the Chilean-American woman wanted to have another child. But she was not eligible to participate in a program in the United States because of her age—she was 37 at the time—and Rios went to Melbourne in 1981. The first implant of a fertilized egg miscarried after 10 days, and Rios asked the centre to freeze two other fertilized embryos for a subsequent attempt.
Whether Rios would have tried again will never be known. A few days before the fatal crash the couple adopted an Argentine baby boy, who died with them on a hillside outside Santiago when their light plane went down. The legal labyrinth and moral dilemmas that the Rioses left behind may take years to sort out: to whom do the embryos belong, what will be done with them and, if they are born from another woman’s womb, will they inherit a share of the Rioses’ fortune, estimated at $1 million? The inheritance question was further complicated when a lawyer representing Mario Rios’s adult son by a previous marriage claimed that the sperm used in the Australian in vitro project was not Rios’s but an anonymous donor’s.
Even before details of the Rios case emerged, a key member of the Queen Victoria Medical Centre program, Robyn Rowland, resigned in March because of her opposition to the research program. Rowland, the former chairman of the program’s in vitro fertilization research co-ordinating committee, which examined sociological and psychological implications, is now the unit’s most outspoken critic. She has campaigned for a halt to embryo freezing and has frequently accused the centre of using women’s bodies as laboratories. Rowland, a psychologist and a feminist, told a scientific conference in Canberra last month: “I believe women will be bred out. If the possibilities of glass wombs and sex preselection came to maturity, male scientists would eventually control women’s bodies and take away their unique power to give life, making them obsolete.”
Rowland said the Rios case is “the perfect example of the process being used before there has been a chance to think through the potential problems.” Canadian legal and ethical experts in the field of artificial insemination echo the concern because there is no specific federal or provincial legislation in the field. The Ontario Law Reform Commission is preparing a report that will examine the legal aspects of such techniques as in vitro fertilization, freezing, and surrogate motherhood. While none of Canada’s seven in vitro clinics is using the freezing procedure yet, Dr. Murray Kroach, director of the Life Program at Toronto East General Hospital, said he feels that it is a natural progression and estimated that it will be in use in Canada in three to four years.
Lacking legal guidelines, Australia’s Victoria state government has ordered that the Rios embryos remain frozen until a government committee rules on the legal implications, a decision that is expected in late summer. In any case, experts believe that the embryos likely would not survive the thawing process because they were frozen in 1981, when the procedure was far less sophisticated than it is now. Whatever the final decision, it will almost certainly have no effect on the two frozen embryos at Mohr’s clinic in Melbourne.
-PHILIP GRENARD in Sydney, with Jack McGowan.