Abstract representation of DNA double helix

Gene Editing and Intellectual Property: A Useful Mix?

The Health Policy and Bioethics Consortia is a monthly series that convenes two international experts from different fields or vantage points to discuss how biomedical innovation and health care delivery are affected by various ethical norms, laws, and regulations.

They are organized by the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics and the Program on Regulation, Therapeutics, and Law (PORTAL) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in collaboration with the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Support provided by the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund at Harvard University.

A light lunch will be provided. This event is free and open to the public, but space is limited and registration is required. Please note that attendees will need to show ID in order to enter the venue. Register now!

 

One way of thinking about genome editing is through the lens of the legal and ethical obligations of ensuring the technology is deployed safely and accurately, for the betterment of human society.

Or, if that’s a mouthful for you, genome editing’s rights—and wrongs. Which brings me to a talk I’ll* be giving at Harvard Medical School on March 8: “Genome Editing: Rights and Wrongs” I feel obligated, however, to asterisk the personal pronoun (“I”) because, in truth, what I’ll be doing is sharing the stage with one the world’s most celebrated scientists, George Church, world-renowned bioethicist, Jeantine Lunshof, and moderated by health policy guru, Aaron Kesselheim. Read More

child pictured from the back holding both parents' hands.

Baby Not on Board: Must Children Born Through Illicit Insemination Be Barred From Recovery?

By Jody Lyneé Madeira

A new reproductive technology case type is forcing state and federal courts to answer a difficult question: can a fertility doctor be sued for medical malpractice by a biological child whom he conceives in secret through artificial insemination, substituting his sperm for an anonymous donor’s without consent?

Shockingly, one court has now answered this question in the negative, finding that the donor-conceived child couldn’t have been the physician’s “patient” prior to conception.

This gravely unjust ruling allows doctors to deny responsibilities to the very children they were paid to help create. But there are ways to avoid these outcomes, both in existing case law and legislative remedies. Read More

doctor wearing gloves holding sperm sample in test tube while writing on clipboard

When Fertility Doctors Use Their Own Sperm, and Families Don’t Find Out for Decades

An Idaho U.S. District Court ruled this week that parents can provisionally sue the fertility doctor who, in 1980, used his own sperm to create their daughter—just so long as their claims aren’t barred by the many years that have passed since the alleged misconduct that DNA tests substantiate. The daughter—now almost 40—discovered the fraud when she tested her ancestry with a mail-order DNA kit.

The facts are scandalous—but not unique. A handful of similar cases have recently come to light.

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hand with a pencil drawing on DNA results

Silver Spoons and Golden Genes: Designing Inequality?

A recent web series sparked controversy with the headline that “Designer babies aren’t futuristic. They’re already here.” The online articles make the case that disparate access to frozen embryo screening for debilitating diseases—sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, or cystic fibrosis—is “designing inequality into our genes.”

The authors are right that reproductive technology isn’t open to everyone. A single cycle of in vitro fertilization (IVF)—the tool that combines sperm and egg in a lab—costs 57% of the average American’s annual income in 2018. The multiple cycles it usually takes to get a baby costs upwards of $100,000. Just fifteen states make insurers cover reproductive technology. Even these often limit coverage mandates to married couples unable to conceive, thereby denying equal benefits to non-traditional families.

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What happens when a fertility clinic is responsible for destroying reproductive material?

A recent article in Marie Claire delved into the story of a Cleveland fertility clinic that lost 4,000 frozen eggs and embryos belonging to 950 patients and featured commentary by Bill of Health contributors. In the piece, “When Your Dreams of Motherhood Are Destroyed,” three Bill of Health/Petrie-Flom Center affiliates discussed some of the many legal challenges of this particular case, and others like it.

The story was reported by 

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Should courts treat destroyed embryos as “lost property” or “wrongful death”?

Bill of Health contributors Glenn Cohen and Dov Fox were featured in this week’s news coverage of novel claims related to recent freezer malfunctions at two major fertility clinics. A class-action suit by one Ohio couple who lost their embryos asks the court to afford embryos standing to use and declare that life begins at conception.Friday’s article asks: “Will Fertility Clinic Disaster Redefine Personhood?” From the piece:

Roe v. Wade made it clear that an embryo or fetus is not a person under the protections of constitutional and federal law. Since then, no [Supreme Court] ju[stices] have suggested otherwise, Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego, told The Daily Beast. That doesn’t mean that wrongful death claims cannot be filed on behalf of a fetus [or that] the fetus has legal standing as a person overall, but wrongful death can be brought on its behalf—”for lack of a better legal fiction,” Fox said.

Fox added that in similar cases dealing with the loss of embryos due to hospital or clinic in the past, the courts decide that an embryo is not a person for the purposes of wrongful death cases. He pointed to two cases where embryos were damaged—one in Arizona in 2005, and one in Illinois in 2008. Both held that the wrongful death statutes do not apply to the loss of an embryo that hasn’t yet been implanted in a womb. Therefore, it would be surprising if the Ohio court ruled differently. “It would fly in the face of all existing legal precedent,” Fox said. Read More

The Abortion Information Wars

by Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

The Supreme Court is currently considering National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, a challenge by abortion opponents to a California law that requires unlicensed centers in the state to inform potential patients about whether the center is medically licensed or not, and that requires clinics offering pregnancy-based care to give accurate information about the availability of low cost, or free government contraceptive and abortion care. The law is an attempt to target clinics which purport to offer comprehensive pre-natal care and pregnancy counselling, while in actuality pursuing an agenda that typically discourages women from availing of abortion care through biased counselling, false descriptions of the risks of abortions and descriptions of foetal development that are inaccurate. The number of these clinics nationwide is estimated at 4,000 – far outstripping the number of actual abortion clinics in the US – and are frequently taxpayer funded. NIFLA claims that the law targets the organisation’s free speech rights and unfairly targets the political beliefs of clinic owners and operators.

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Mass embryo destruction, reproductive never events, and the not-quite-Wild West

By Dov Fox

Information found in this new post by Dov Fox is also available in Slate’s March 19th article In Vitro Injuries: How should courts compensate would-be parents when assisted reproductive technology goes terribly wrong?

More than 1 in 10 Americans seek fertility treatment. IVF and similar technologies result in 64,000 babies—1.6% annually—of all those born in the U.S. each year. For people willing to move heaven and earth to form a family, this is the medicine of miracles. But reproductive mishaps turn these dreams into nightmares. Some result in unplanned pregnancies. Others, lost chances for parenthood. I’ve considered the legal complexities elsewhere at law review length. (A reply to critics Robert Rabin, Carol Sanger, and Gregory Keating is out shortly with Columbia.) But it’s the facts that have made headlines of late.

The Today Show and Nightly News interviewed me in the wake of recent storage tank malfunctions at two major fertility clinics—one in San Francisco, the other outside Cleveland—that destroyed more than 4,000 cryopreserved eggs and embryos. The Cleveland facility said that “alerts that should have been sent to staff were never sent.” These incidents have left over a thousand affected couples mourning future children who would never be; practitioners wondering how something like this could have happened; and prospective parents around the country worrying that tragedy could strike again.

It’s not the first time. NBC News uncovered a history of freezer malfunctions. Over a decade ago in Florida over 60 cancer survivors lost their stored sperm “when a tank made by the same manufacturer failed.” Exact figures for such breakdowns are hard to come by, however. Elsewhere in health care delivery, most states mandate reporting of “never events,” such as surgery on the wrong body part or patient. But the United State has no public or private system for tracking what I’ve referred to as “reproductive” never events, let alone less serious errors. So it’s impossible to know with any reliability or precision the incidence of professional mistakes in matters of procreation.

Available data points are bracing. A 2008 survey of nearly half of all U.S. fertility clinics found that more than one in five misdiagnosed, mislabeled, or mishandled reproductive materials. A 2014 study revealed that popular methods of prenatal screening for fetal abnormality sound “a false alarm half of the time.” And in 2016, a national ratings website found that 18-24% of fertility patients reported damaged or destroyed samples among a host of other errors.

None among regulators, agencies, insurers, medical boards, or professional societies require safeguards that might prevent mistakes like these from happening in the first place. The U.S. stands out among developed countries for its failure to rein in wrongdoing that forces parenthood on people who don’t want it or that denies it to those who do. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, a national agency requires that all facilities comply with a standard of professional conduct that covers “all details of the clinical and embryological practice associated with assisted reproductive technology.”

That agency—the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—maintains rigorous laboratory inspections, often without notice. And even under its careful oversight, the agency reports that 1 out of every 100 fertility procedures—over 500 each year—involve reproductive materials that’s lost, damaged or destroyed. It stands to reason that these errors are at least as common in the United States, where fertility clinics, sperm banks, and surrogacy agencies aren’t monitored or supervised in any meaningful way. My own research uncovered hundreds of American cases in which procreation was negligently imposed, deprived, or confounded.

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Reproductive Negligence under Maine Law

By Alex Stein

STEIN on Medical Malpractice has published a survey of noteworthy court decisions in the field for 2017. This survey includes an important decision, Doherty v. Merck & Co., Inc., 154 A.3d 1202 (Me. 2017), featuring reproductive negligence.

This decision could benefit from Dov Fox’s excellent article, Reproductive Negligence, 117 Colum. L. Rev. 149 (2017).

The plaintiff, Kayla Doherty, visited a federally-supported health care center in Maine to inquire about birth control options. Her physician recommended an implantable drug manufactured by the defendant, the Merck company. The drug consisted of a single, four-centimeter-long rod inserted under the skin of the inner side of the patient’s upper arm with a syringe-like applicator. The drug works by inhibiting ovulation and is designed to be effective for at least three years unless the rod is removed sooner by a physician. The drug’s applicator, however, occasionally malfunctioned: it had a history of failed insertion attempts that occurred when the rod would remain stuck in the applicator following the procedure (unbeknownst to the treating physician and the patient).

Doherty was a victim of this malfunction. Read More