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Connecticut Supreme Court Rules In Frozen Human Embryo Possession Case

Mark Mirko
The Hartford Courant
Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Andrew J. McDonald, seated between Justice Raheem L. Mullins (left) and Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson, questions Joseph P. Secola, attorney for defendant Timothy Goodwin, during arguments on April 30, 2019.

Connecticut Supreme Court justices ruled Wednesday that remaining frozen human embryos belonging to a divorced couple can be destroyed, as previously stipulated in a contract agreement.

The court avoided making a judgement in an argument about affording embryos human rights, but its decision did set a legal precedent for future possession disputes by clarifying how contract agreements should be followed.

“What the court says today is that those agreements, which often amount to a consent form that you sign with your medical provider, are enforceable as to the disposition as to what actually happens to the embryos that are created,” said Katherine Kraschel, executive director of the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale.

At the center of the case was a dispute between Timothy Goodwin and Jennifer Bilbao, who wed in 2011. Shortly after, the couple sought in vitro fertilization treatments at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine’s Center for Advanced Reproductive Services.

Court documents note that they created several embryos, one of which resulted in the birth of a child. Other embryos, or pre-embryos, were preserved and stored for future use.

At the beginning of the process, the couple signed a contract agreement at the fertility clinic in which they said any remaining embryos should be destroyed in the event they divorced. But when their marriage ended in 2016, Goodwin stated that he had changed his mind.

During a previous trial, Goodwin said he wanted to preserve the embryos to either have another child or give them up for adoption. Bilbao, his ex-wife, pushed to honor the terms of the contract agreement and have them destroyed.

The lower court ruled that the contract agreement was not an enforceable document and instead weighed the interests of both parties. It awarded embryo possession to Bilbao, stating that her interest to avoid further procreation outweighed Goodwin’s wish to create another child without the consent of its genetically related mother.

But Goodwin appealed and the case reached the state’s highest court. During arguments in April, Goodwin and his attorney said that an embryo should be afforded human rights and should not be treated as property. 

But in Wednesday’s decision, the state Supreme Court declined to review and make judgement on those points. The justices instead wrote, “Whether a pre-embryo is a human being is, at least in part, a question of fact. It is certainly not a question an appellate court can determine without some measure of fact-finding. The defendant concedes this. Nevertheless, he (Goodwin) offered no evidence at trial to establish it.”

Ultimately, justices overturned the lower trial court’s decision, stating that the contract agreement was, in fact, enforceable. Justices clarified that “our decision applies to contracts that, if enforced, will not result in procreation,” or in cases in which upholding contract terms would force one party to become a genetic parent against his or her wishes.

Goodwin declined to comment on the decision Wednesday, and attorney Scott Garosshen, representing Bilbao, had no further comment, saying the decision spoke for itself.

The ruling underscores the significance of contract agreements in these situations and shows how they can be used, Kraschel said, and it provides more certainty to fertility clinics and storage facilities, which rely on these contract agreements in creating, storing, using or discarding embryos.

Kraschel said there’s now a question of whether lawmakers should look at policies or legislation that strengthens requirements or creates safeguards for patients and fertility clinics when entering into these contract agreements.

“Are there policies that fertility clinics should adopt to make sure that these consent forms are taken very seriously by the patients and their partners when they sign them?” she said. “Because they’re signed in a medical setting when they’re trying to create a family together. And so, to ask them to pause in that moment and really think about what happens if they get divorced, I would say it’s worth being very thoughtful in how those discussions are approached in a clinical setting to make sure these agreements are very thoughtful arrangements between the people that are undergoing IVF treatments.”

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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