Frozen Embryos: People, Property, or Something In-Between?

While debates over the personhood of fetuses have been raging for years, a new issue has been arising with increasing frequency: what is personhood status of frozen embryos? There have been many recent disputes about how to deal with frozen embryos when the progenitors of such embryos disagree about their use. For example, a divorced Missouri couple is currently involved in a custody battle over their frozen embryos, which were created when the couple were married and went through the process of in vitro fertilization. While the former wife would like to keep the embryos to have more children, the former husband would like the embryos to be destroyed. Similar issues arose for actress Sofia Vergara, whose ex-fiancé wants to use frozen embryos they made when they were engaged.

Cases of this nature beg several important questions. How should embryos in vitro be classified? Does the embryo have rights? What are the rights of each progenitor? Anti-abortion activists have argued that embryos should be treated like other children, while pro-choice advocates contend that people should not be forced to procreate. In the Missouri case referenced above, the Court has tried to avoid these difficult issues with a compromise, calling the embryos “a unique form of marital property” and awarding joint custody to the disputing parties.  Under the Court’s holding, the embryos may only be used if both progenitors agree. While this decision provides a temporary solution, it still leaves many issues unresolved and significant questions unanswered.



Potentially Dangerous Precedent Possible in Mississippi

Anti-fetal homicide laws were enacted originally to protect mothers of unborn children against violent acts. Yet, in reality, “they’ve led to disproportionate prosecution against African American women who suffer miscarriages.” An ongoing case in Mississippi could set a dangerous precedent with regard to the criminalization of pregnant women for their purportedly reckless acts.  Rennie Gibbs was charged with the murder of her unborn child after it was stillborn when she was 16 years old. Gibbs is being prosecuted for “depraved heart murder” because the autopsy showed that Gibbs had used cocaine during her pregnancy—but the cause of death was originally attributed to the umbilical cord being wrapped around the infant’s neck. That cause of death was never ruled out.

Read more here and here.

Preventable Diseases on the Rise

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) created an interactive world map that shows the resurgence of preventable diseases over the course of 5 years. From 2008 to 2013, the CFR plotted cases of whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps and rubella that occurred globally. The map shows that whooping cough has resurged in the United States, and that measles is on the rise in Europe. A false study from 1998 is presumed responsible for the rise of these preventable diseases in countries that have access to vaccines; the discredited study suggested a causal link between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella and autism.

Read more here.

Denver Nuns Reject Any Participation in Providing Contraceptive Coverage

Though churches and other places of worship are exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) requirement that insurers provide birth control coverage, institutions with religious affiliations that provide services to the public are not exempt. Health plan administrators for these institutions must provide birth control coverage to employees. However, religious groups may sign a government form objecting to the coverage and submit it to their health plan administrators, in order to “distance” themselves from perceived violations of their religious tenets. A group of nuns, the Little Sisters, run a nursing home in Denver, and they object to this compromise. The nuns maintain that signing the form makes them “complicit in providing contraceptive coverage.”

The case now awaits a decision in the 10th Circuit, which will determine whether the Little Sisters must provide contraceptive coverage under the ACA. While the appeal is pending, the Supreme Court has dictated that the nuns do not have to sign the government form objecting to the coverage. Instead, the Court requested that the Little Sisters make their objection in writing to the Department of Health and Human Services, and do not need to provide copies to the administrator of their health plan.

Read more here.

New Zealand Case Raises Questions Regarding Autonomy for Transgendered Children

In New Zealand, parents of a seven-year-old, who was born biologically female but identifies as male, have been criticized for their decision to consider allowing the child to begin using puberty blockers. The puberty blockers would make the child’s transition to becoming male easier later in life, and Claudia MacKay, president of Agender New Zealand, claims that the effects of the blockers are reversible. However, the head of the Philosophy Department at the University at Aukland, Tim Dare, questions whether a seven-year-old is capable of understanding the consequences of such a decision. He claims further that the parents should not make this decision alone, and should involve medical professionals. The parents are concerned that if the child is forced to go through puberty he could be psychologically damaged. Yet, some psychologists claim that gender confusion in children is common and some children grow out of it after puberty.

Read more here.

Parents Sue State Over Gender Reassignment Surgery

The parents of an adopted, eight year old child, who is identified only as “M.C.,” filed suit against the State of South Carolina recently. M.C. was born with both male and female reproductive organs.  While MC was in the state’s custody, the state arranged for gender-reassignment surgery (which included removal of the child’s male genital organs). MC was raised as a female. However, M.C. now identifies as male. The complaint alleges that the decision to remove M.C.’s male reproductive organs was never brought before a judge. The doctors and hospital involved filed a motion to dismiss.  Their motion was denied. The parents hope that the lawsuit will be a “wake-up call” for authorities in charge of children in state care.

Read more here.

NIH Allocates $25 Million for Genomic Screenings

The National Institute of Health (NIH) will grant twenty-five million dollars, over the next five years, in order to examine health, privacy, economics, interpersonal issues and newborn genomic screening. The NIH will take DNA samples from newborns, from four U.S. cities; however, many of the parents and children involved will have no notice that their DNA is being studied.

The goal of the NIH is to discover whether it is economically feasible to obtain every newborn’s DNA for analysis purposes. Currently, newborns are screened for twenty-six manageable, or even preventable, conditions or diseases. The current screening costs approximately one-hundred dollars; however the new genomic screening costs approximately five-thousand dollars. In addition, some are concerned that, if genomic screening proves successful, many parents may limit their children’s activities in order to protect them from disorders that may never develop.

Read more here.

HHS Revisits Standard for Informed Consent in Experimental Treatments

Medical research, conducted recently on approximately 2,000 premature children born with anemia, has sparked an ethical debate over how much doctors must tell patients and their parents regarding the risks of medical research. The study aimed to uncover the most appropriate time to administer a blood transfusion to premature babies in order to reduce their risks of death and brain damage. Extremely premature babies received different dosages of oxygen in order to find the dosage that most effectively lowers the risk of blindness and death for premature children generally. The ethical debate concerns whether the parental consent form adequately informed the parents about the parameters of the study.

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Mississippi Implements Novel Law to “Chip Away” at Teen Pregnancy

Mississippi has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the United States.  A new law requires that any female who refuses to name the father of her child, and is under the age of 16, must submit to a DNA test conducted by authorities using blood from the umbilical cord. The DNA tests will be used to prosecute statutory rape cases by proving the father’s paternity. Supporters of the law claim it will help drive down the number of teen pregnancies in the State. However, detractors believe that the law may interfere unduly with privacy rights.  Read more here.

Measles “Circulating More Widely” in UK

According to public health officials in England, the number of confirmed cases of measles in Somerset County has recently risen significantly. The affected population (all between ten and twenty-four years of age) did not receive the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Public officials are trying to implement a “catch up” program for children in order to protect children, as well as the community at large.

Read more here.