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Medical Advances Can be Moral and Social Setbacks

by  Jeff Johnson, J.D.

Davis v. Davis began in 1989 as a divorce trial that took place in Maryville, Tennessee. The divorce was filed less than a year after nine embryos were created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) at the request of the husband and wife. Two embryos were implanted and later spontaneously aborted. Those remaining were placed in frozen storage, which is intended to give the mother’s body time to recover and thus enhance the potential for success of additional implantations.

The controversy in the case centered on what to do with the seven frozen embryos following the divorce (see Perry and Schneider, 1992). The mother argued that the embryos were “potential children,” and should be saved for implantation. The father argued that the embryos should be thawed out. What is most alarming is that he described the embryos as property, and reasoned that they deserved no individual rights, but were subject to the equitable property laws of the State. The State Supreme Court later held that the embryos were something in between property and persons, and deserved special rights. Ultimately, the Court said that the husband and wife would have to agree on how to dispose of the embryos. Given their opposing positions, though, they could not come to an agreement.

The legal issues are complex, the future implications are disturbing, and recognizing scriptural application may seem difficult. However, the reader should recall God’s view on the taking of human life, and the unique status given to human life as opposed to property or animals (Genesis 1:28).

Also, the dogged assertion of “rights” comes into play—the rights of the parents against each other, and the rights of the parents against the children. However, Scripture warns against pride, and admonishes us to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord (Proverbs 11:2; James 4:10).

The development of law lags behind medical advances, technological advances, and societal changes. Thus, it is difficult to determine where the law will go from here, but we should be aware of possible developments such as: further erosion of the recognition of the sanctity of human life; embryo marketing based on desired characteristics; medical determination regarding which embryos should live; and more lawsuits against doctors for not informing patients of potential fetal deformities or propensities for deformities.


Perry and Schneider (1992), “Cryopreserved Embryos: Who Should Decide Their Fate?,” Journal of Legal Medicine, 13:463-500.

[NOTE: In June 1993, Mr. Davis obtained the seven embryos from the IVF clinic where they were being stored, and destroyed them.]

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