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A Cold War on Embryo Adoptions

Transfers that help infertile couples have kids likely are the next flash point in the abortion debate. Rights advocates are in a tough position.

March 22, 2002|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just before Lucinda Borden became pregnant, doctors gave her a photograph of the embryos they were about to place in her womb. They looked delicate and vulnerable, like bubbles that might suddenly pop. "I could not take my eyes off the photo," Borden said. "They looked so fragile to me."

And yet, the embryos already had survived 18 months in frozen storage and a trip across the country to California. A couple at a Delaware fertility clinic had made more embryos than they needed to build a family. Unwilling to destroy the extras, they donated them to Borden and her husband, John, who were unable to conceive a child on their own.

Today, 17-month-old Luke and Mark Borden are part of a brewing debate over the human embryo. But not for the way they were born. Doctors have been quietly transferring embryos between willing couples for years, and experts say the number of resulting children could be in the hundreds.

The provocative part of their arrival came well before Lucinda Borden became pregnant. She and John submitted to criminal background checks, allowed social workers to inspect their home and asked friends to vouch for their fitness as parents--steps that would have been necessary if they had adopted not embryos but children.

The screening was not required by law, and it cost the Bordens $4,500. But by encouraging couples such as the Bordens to go through steps similar to adoption, conservative and antiabortion groups are trying to elevate the legal and moral status of the embryo in society.

Embryo transfers, in fact, are poised to become the next big battlefield in the abortion debate.

"I really believe that I adopted children--babies--and not some dot on the page," said Lucinda Borden, an accountant and seminary student from Fontana who describes herself as a devout Christian. "At the moment they were created, they received a soul from God. I just adopted them at a very young stage." Her embryo transfer and background screening were arranged by a traditional adoption agency that has begun working with embryos.

The issue raises some particularly thorny questions for abortion rights advocates. Some are open to laws that protect the children that result from embryo transfers. But they worry that those laws might undermine abortion rights.

In most states, a lack of laws regarding embryos has led doctors and lawyers to treat them like blood and body organs, which can be freely donated, or like cars and real estate, with ownership transferred by contract. Most fertility doctors talk of "embryo donations," reflecting the view that embryos are property, not people. One prominent exception is Louisiana, where state law says a human embryo outside the womb has some of the same legal rights as a person.

Now, to the chagrin of abortion rights groups and some advocates for fertility patients, a growing number of antiabortion activists are calling for state adoption laws to cover embryos, a change that might give embryos the same legal status as children.

"The idea is that we buy and sell and donate property, but we adopt people," said Samuel B. Casey, chief executive of the Christian Legal Society, a legal assistance network of Christian lawyers. Promoting adoption for embryos, he said, is part of his group's effort "to win for the human embryo, step by step, a recognition of its humanity."

In Wisconsin, antiabortion groups are backing legislation to authorize a study of embryo adoptions, with an eye toward putting adoption requirements into state law. In Washington, Kenneth Connor, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said requiring embryo transfers to be conducted as adoptions soon might become a legislative priority for his group.

Casey said the Christian Legal Society had tapped its network of lawyers to examine adoption laws in all 50 states. "We want to see if reforms are necessary so that in every state human embryos may be adopted in the same fashion that born children are adopted," he said.

Even some abortion rights advocates believe that children born from embryo transfers deserve certain protections offered to those in traditional adoptions. In adoption, for example, the state makes an effort to ensure that children do not go to abusive homes.

And yet that same protection, if assigned to embryos, could help antiabortion groups one day build a case that embryos and fetuses have rights that supersede a woman's right to abortion.

Advocates Fear Erosion of Abortion Rights

Similar concerns have surrounded "fetal homicide" laws, which allow prosecutors in many states to treat an unborn child as a victim in violent crime. "We're worried that . . . a Supreme Court justice surveying the landscape will say there's a new social consensus that recognizes that embryos are people and will use that to deny the right to abortion," said Betsy Cavendish, legal director at the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

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