Judge: Frozen Embryos Belonging To Divorced Couple Must Be Destroyed

A California judge determined five frozen embryos, which belong to a divorced couple, must be destroyed. Five years ago, Mimi Lee and Stephen Dindley signed an agreement stating the embryos would be destroyed if they ever divorced. On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo ruled that the estranged couple must follow through with that agreement.

In 2010, Mimi and Stephen agreed to undergo an in-vitro fertilization procedure, as Mimi was diagnosed with breast cancer — and chemotherapy would likely make her infertile.

However, they also signed an agreement with the University of San Francisco’s Center for Reproductive Health — which stated that the embryos would be destroyed if they ever divorced.

As the procedure was successful, Mimi and Stephen decided to freeze and store a total of five embryos for possible future use. Unfortunately, the embryos were never used.

In 2013, Mimi Lee and Stephen Dindley were divorced and their embryos subsequently became a topic of heated controversy.

As reported by Mercury News, Mimi has fought for two years to save the embryos — despite her prior agreement to the contrary. As the chemotherapy treatments have rendered her infertile, she argued that the embryos are her last chance of becoming a mother.

Stephen argued that the frozen embryos should be destroyed, per the signed agreement. As reported by NBC News, he was specifically concerned, as he believed his former wife “would use any children to take financial advantage of him.”

In Thursday’s ruling, the judge determined the frozen embryos must be destroyed, per the former couple’s signed agreement.

As in-vitro fertilization remains a popular option for individuals and couples — who are unable to conceive or carry children, many fertility clinics are requiring patients to sign an Embryonic Disposition Agreement.

Unfortunately, as explained by the MacElree Harvey law firm, “the validity of such agreements has not been authorized by statute in any state.”

As there are no statutory laws addressing the disposition of frozen embryos, the decisions are left up to individual judges. However, many questions remain — including the actual legal status of an embryo.

While some judges have determined embryos are “created with the intent of producing human life,” and therefore have legal human rights, other judges have determined that they are to be treated as property.

In her 83-page decision, Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo determined the embryos in question could not be treated as property as “UCSF acknowledges that it will only freeze and transfer embryos it deems ‘viable.'” Instead, she ruled that the embryos “are not property nor are they a fully formed human being.”

As Mimi Lee and Stephen Dindley “voluntarily and intelligently” entered into the agreement in 2013, the judge determined the frozen embryos shall be destroyed, per that agreement.

As reported by the New York Times, judges in at least 11 states were faced with similar decisions, about post-divorce embryos, in the last 23 years. In eight of those cases, the judge ruled that the embryos were to be destroyed.

However, judges in two states, including Illinois and Pennsylvania, sided with women who were infertile and wanted to use the embryos after their relationships ended.

Although she admits the case was not easy to decide, Judge Massullo said she made her decision in the hopes “that these disputes are resolved in a clear-eyed manner — unswayed by the turmoil, emotion and accusations that attend to contested proceedings in family court.”

Ultimately, the judge said her decision was based on the couple’s intention when they signed the agreement.

The judge ordered the frozen embryos to be destroyed by the University of San Francisco’s Center for Reproductive Health. However, the embryos will be held until both parties have had a chance to exhaust their right to appeal.

[Image via Shutterstock/tlegend]