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ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU NEWS RELEASE * NEWS RELEASE * NEWS RELEASE * NEWS RELEASE Tennessee Judge Reverses Lower Court; Finds Fertilized Eggs Not Persons For IMMEDIATE RELEASE October 1, 1990 In a ruling that will protect important medical interests and the future of scientific research, the Tennessee Court of Appeals has declared that four-celled human embryos do not have the same legal status as persons born alive. The decision, in the landmark appeal of Davis v. Davis, involved a divorced couple who were unable to agree on how to dispose of seven four- and eight-celled frozen embryos that they had jointly created. A lower court judge had ruled that "life begins at conception" and, because the embryos were persons, that they must be awarded to the woman, who could further develop them. The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's finding, holding that embryos were not "persons" under either the United States Constitution or Tennessee law. "The opinion has reversed, at least for now, a dangerous precedent that had threatened constitutional, religious and medical interests important to us all," said Janet Benshoof, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. "As the Davis case demonstrates," said David L. Goldberg, an ACLU cooperating attorney who wrote the brief, "it is essential that we retain a voice in cases, large and small, in which our constitutional freedoms, including the freedom to pursue scientific and medical advances, are implicated." The lower court's opinion made clear that it was primarily concerned with the rights of the seven embryos, not of the couple that had produced them. The judge, for example, concluded that "human life begins at the moment of conception" and that "the best interests of the children, existing in vitro," would be served best by awarding them to the woman. In its brief, in which the ACLU represented thirteen medical and religious organizations and individuals, the ACLU argued that the court's finding that the embryos were "children" with separate legal interests violated both the U.S. Constitution and Tennessee law. The organizations represented by the ACLU included the American Society of Human Genetics, the National Society of Genetics Counselors, the American Public Health Association, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, the American Fertility Society, Catholics for Free Choice, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Americans for Religious Liberty. The brief also said that the notion of so-called "embryonic rights" or "fetal rights" threatened all reproductive rights, especially access to developing medical technologies such as in vitro fertilization, and access to post-implantation contraceptives. The Court of Appeals agreed, writing: "Even after viability, human embryos are not given legal status equivalent to that of a person already born." "In recent years," Benshoof said, "a deliberate collateral attack on abortion rights has come in the form of efforts to gain legal rights for the fetus in non-abortion contexts -- such as forced surgery on pregnant women to help fetuses, criminal prosecutions of pregnant women who may be drug abusing, and bans on fetal tissue research and fetal experimentation. "The Tennessee decision decisively states that frozen embryos are not people subject to the normal custody and visitation rulings in a divorce court," she added. "This decision has, at least for the moment, dispelled the chilling effect of the lower court's ruling on genetic and fertility research. It should serve as a sterling precedent to guard against any similar attacks on women's rights and scientific endeavor in the future."


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