Losing Embryos, Finding Justice image

Annals of Internal Medicine, November 20, 2018
I. Glenn Cohen (Faculty Director), Dov Fox, and Eli Y. Adashi


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On 3 March 2018, a liquid nitrogen storage tank broke down at University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland, Ohio. More than 950 patients lost over 4000 eggs and embryos (also called “preembryos”) that were frozen and stored for later use. The hospital's letter to patients pointed to human error. The Ohio Department of Health found the fertility center out of compliance, and inquests are still pending (1).

This incident is not the first time that reproductive materials have been unintentionally discarded, destroyed, or otherwise harmed. Knowing how frequently such errors happen is difficult, but this event seems to have resulted in the largest number of embryos ever lost in this fashion in the United States. In other fields of health care delivery, states mandate the reporting of “never events,” such as wrong-site or wrong-patient surgery. No such public or private system for tracking harmful reproductive errors exists in the United States. As a result, the incidence of professional lapses in matters of procreation in this country is unknown (2).

More than 70 aggrieved patients have brought over 40 lawsuits against University Hospitals of Cleveland. Most of these claims have been consolidated into a single case (1). However, plaintiffs Wendy and Rick Penniman have sought to sue on their own (3), asking that their embryos be afforded full legal status on the ground that the “life of a person begins at the moment of conception” (3). We discuss the thorny legal issues that this stratagem raises for this and future cases and the implications of these issues.

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bioethics biotechnology i. glenn cohen medical malpractice medical safety personhood regulation reproductive rights reproductive technologies