Skip to content

From Sperm to Embryo: A Response to In Vitro Fertilization Court Ruling

After an intruder accidentally destroyed frozen “embryos” in an Alabama fertility clinic, people began to wonder about the legal protection afforded to the potential babies. On February 16, 2024, the Alabama Supreme Court issued a first-of-its-kind decision, ruling that stored embryos should be afforded the same legal protection as children under the state’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act of 1872. This decision overruled a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case.

The final ruling is incorrect, however, because the organisms in question were not children and could not become so unless they were successfully implanted in a woman’s uterus. A single sperm or an ovum cannot become a child on their own. A zygote, which is an ovum that sperm has fertilized, cannot become one either. Neither can a morula or a blastocyst. They are no more capable of becoming a baby than stacks of lumber are able to transform themselves into a home. 

Things begin to change when the blastocyst becomes an embryo by implanting itself in the inner wall of the uterus and becomes enveloped by four membranes that contribute to how the new life develops. Embryos have all the biological basics they need to become children and adults unless something goes wrong or they are aborted. Many specialists and non-specialists cause confusion by using the word “embryo” as an umbrella term covering everything from zygotes to fetuses.

There are two groups which benefit from this confusion. The first group asserts that zygotes, morula and blastocysts deserve the same protection that embryos do because there is no significant difference. The second group, while agreeing that there is no difference, claims that aborting embryos should require no more justification than discarding blastocysts. Both of these groups are wrong. There is a difference between a blastocyst and an embryo: one cannot become a child and the other can. This distinction doesn’t necessarily disallow abortion, however, aborting an embryo requires greater medical and ethical justification. 

The Alabama Supreme Court ruling erased this difference, saying: “The central question presented in these consolidated appeals, which involve the death of embryos kept in a cryogenic nursery, is whether the act contains an unwritten exception to that rule for extrauterine children – that is, unborn children who are located outside of a biological uterus at the time they are killed. Under existing black-letter law, the answer to that question is no: the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location.”

The ruling also states that what they call “embryos” were not implanted, but were being stored at low temperatures at their owners’ request because their other “embryos” had been successfully implanted. This shows how using the word “embryo” in two different ways causes confusion. The question we should ask is whether the organisms in question had any possibility of becoming a child. The answer is no because they had not been implanted. A human life cannot begin until successful implantation occurs. And not every zygote achieves that goal. Stopping fertility clinics from discarding these zygotes means forcing them to do more than the human body.  

From my Christian point of view, the ethical objections to artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and surrogate gestation are conditional. While none of these options constitutes adultery or anything like it, they can all be physically, emotionally, and financially costly to the individuals. This suggests neither a red or green ethical traffic light, but an amber one. 

Image credit: Pexels

About the author

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.