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

Why Are So Many American Women Dying in Childbirth?

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

In November Serena Williams, indisputably one of the greatest – if not the greatest – tennis player in history gave birth to her daughter by emergency Caesarean section. After the surgery, Williams reported to an attending nurse that she was experiencing shortness of breath and immediately assumed she was experiencing pulmonary embolism. The star athlete has a history of blood clots and had discontinued blood thinners before the surgical delivery. Contrary to William’s requests for a CT scan and blood thinners, medical staff assumed that pain medication had made her confused. A later CT scan confirmed Williams’ self-diagnosis. Stripping out the fact of Williams’ identity turns this near-miss into a terrifyingly common story in US maternal care, albeit one with a happier ending than many. The global trend in maternal death rates – the rate of women dying in childbirth and post-childbirth – has rapidly decreased over the past 15 years. At the same time, the US, despite recording one of the highest per capita income levels in the world, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world.

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What The Great Divide Over IVF Coverage Can Tell Us About The Future Of Other High-Tech Interventions

This new post by Eli Adashi appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.

One is hard pressed to conjure up a more fundamental right than the right to procreate. It is a right “baked” into human DNA, a right inherent to the very existence of the species, and a right enshrined now 70 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. In principle then, the precept of procreative liberty is all that is necessary and sufficient to undergird the right to infertility care in general and to in vitro fertilization (IVF) in particular. In support of this premise, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined infertility as a disease. Just as importantly, the WHO included Infertility in its International Classification of Diseases replete with the billing codes thereof.

However, the promise of procreative liberty and all that flows from it has yet to be fully realized. For one, the aforementioned principles have not been uniformly embraced by all member states of the United Nations including the United States. For another, access to IVF remains compromised by high procedural costs, widening income disparities, extensive underwriting gaps in both the public and private sectors, deep-seated sociocultural clefts, and fundamental moral discords. To those seeking to build a family, the confluence of these hindrances is nothing short of prohibitive with the net effect being access all but denied. None of this is surprising of course. Access, after all, equals affordability, which is unlikely to improve anytime soon given growing price pressures and widening income disparities. […]

Read the full article here!