MIDDLEBURG HEIGHTS, Ohio – Colorful umbrellas dotted an otherwise bleak cemetery landscape as chaplains led a crowd of about 50 people in prayer. Kate Plants, the memorial service’s organizer, stood by an ash tree, crying.
The ceremony was for the potential souls lost in one of the biggest mishaps in the history of modern reproductive technology, the “catastrophic failure” of a cryogenic tank at the University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland. Some 4,000 eggs and embryos had been destroyed in a single weekend. Five belonged to Plants, 33.
As the number of stored eggs and embryos rises in the U.S., people desperate to become parents are bonding with potential future children at the earliest stages, when they are still just a few dozen cells. The freezer malfunction has highlighted that bond — and sparked a debate over what, exactly, was lost.
That debate is taking place in dozens of lawsuits filed since the Ohio accident and a similar one at Pacific Fertility in California in March. The most explosive suit seeks to declare embryos people, potentially opening up the Cleveland center to charges of wrongful death.
The debate also is playing out in everyday life as prospective parents such as Plants search for appropriate ways to grieve. She placed her embryos in storage four years ago shortly before her ovaries were removed during cancer treatment. The embryos were her only chance to have biological children.
But when she and other mourners shared news of the May memorial service online, some commentators declared the event “stupid.”
“Thanks for disrespecting those bereaved parents” who “birthed, held, nurtured, raised and cared for and buried” their children, one woman, who had recently lost her youngest son to cancer, wrote to Plants in a private Facebook message.
“I thought I was going to throw up,” Plants said. “Everybody’s pain is different, and just because I’m honoring our loss doesn’t mean we are taking away from anyone else’s.”
Clinic officials, too, are struggling to respond to the accident, about which they have provided little information. A preliminary investigation showed that the temperature in the tanks spiked rapidly one night, for unexplained reasons, after employees had mistakenly turned off temperature-sensitive alarms. Nearly all the eggs and embryos, able to survive only for a few minutes at room temperature, are believed to be nonviable.
Clinic officials have apologized repeatedly. They say they are working to help people who lost eggs or embryos by providing refunds, free services and “emotional support.”
“We recognize the sorrow this situation has caused patients who were affected,” the medical center said in a statement to the Washington Post, “and are sorry for the tank failure.”
But many people who lost genetic material say they are entitled to something more than an apology and a refund — including Wendy and Rick Penniman, a Cleveland-area couple who filed the lawsuit arguing that life begins at conception and seeking personhood status for fertilized eggs.
“Right now, embryos are treated more as property than people,” said their attorney, Bruce Taubman. “It’s a very complicated issue.”
If granted, the request would have huge legal implications, especially for abortion rights. University Hospitals attorneys fought to have the case thrown out, arguing that the couple signed a consent form that referred to the embryos as their “sole property” and that “Ohio law does not recognize the embryo as a ‘distinct human entity with rights.’ ”
University Hospitals has argued that the loss should be litigated under the state’s medical malpractice laws, which place caps on damages and recognize the would-be parents — not the lost embryos — as the victims.
In May, Cuyahoga County Judge Stuart Friedman allowed the Pennimans’ lawsuit to proceed, but he denied their “personhood” motion. “The parents may believe that the embryos they created are already persons, but that is a matter of faith or of their personal beliefs, not of science and not of law,” he wrote.