The Wrong Embryo and Language

Just a quick coda to the recent case popularly referred to as “the wrong embryo case.”  (And yes, I’ve used that terminology, too.)  Thursday Carolyn Savage gave birth to a baby boy and the boy will be raises by the Morells, who are genetically related to him.

What’s most notable to me is the language the Morells used to describe Carolyn Savage.  In earlier discussions here I and some commenters touched on whether she would be considered a surrogate.   But the Morells chose to call her a “guardian angel” and the headline writer shortened that to “guardian.” 

A long time ago on this blog I struggled with word choice in various surrogacy situations.   Nothing like “guardian” ever crossed my mind. 

It’s an interesting choice.   I think, at least in this context, to be called a guardian is to given a certain amount of honor.   It’s a more favorable term than “surrogate.”  There is a way in which, particularly under these circumstances, it seems appropriate.   But there is a tinge of something there that makes me a trifle uneasy.  (Is it from the Handmaid’s Tale?)      

I wonder if the term has a future outside of this one instance?

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4 responses to “The Wrong Embryo and Language

  1. I think the term guardian is eminently suitable. I actually talked about this case over the weekend with several people and all of them felt as I did, that without doubt the Morells are the true parents and that Carolyn Savage was the inadvertant surrogate. Like me, they all felt that without a formal donation of their embryo, the embryo remained the possession of the Morell’s and developed within Carolyn to be the Morrell’s child.

    An interesting question we discussed following from this is at what stage can people donate their children? Clearly people can donate sperm, eggs and embryos, but can a developing fetus be donated, after all adoptions can only be done after birth. Is there any problem with a woman donating a fetus growing in her so that an adoption can be avoided?

    • A pregnant woman can arrange for the child to be adopted after its birth BUT (and the but here is important) she will always have the right to change her mind. And the law would always say, at the moment of birth, that she was the mother of the child, which means an adoption would have to follow.

      A parent cannot be bound by a contract or agreement to deliver her/his child to another person. (That doesn’t mean that the parent cannot give the child up for adoption, just that she is not obliged to do so by her earlier agreement.)

      It’s fortunate that the Savages and Morells agreed on the desired outcome. If they had not agreed, everyone involved could have made some claim to be a legal parent. And as I noted earlier, the outcome might well depend on where the case happened to be litigated. (I still might suggest to the Morells that they be safer completing an adoption.)

  2. The question I’m asking is until what stage can people donate their children, rather than be their parent and adopt them out?

    We’ve clarified that people can donate their children at the egg, sperm and embryo stage. But is there any reason why if let us say a woman is already pregnant she can’t just donate her child in utero so that the recipient doesn’t have to bother with adoption.

    Would it make any difference if a woman wanted to donate the fetus in her utero if she conceived it coitally, through IUI using donor sperm, through a donated embryo or if she was carrying as a surrogate for a reneging couple?

    To me it seems that there might be an issue of what the intent was when the woman got pregnant. If so, then I think that clarifies why the Morrell’s embryo could never become the Savage’s baby.

    • These are excellent questions that show, I think, how difficult it is to draw lines about parentage in many instances. I think the genetic line (genetics makes you a parent) is among the easiest and most consistent line to draw. Though it may be hard to track them down, each child will have two legal parents, one of each sex.

      That said, I don’t think any state uses a purely genetic standard. The husband of a woman who gives birth is typically presumed to be a legal parent without genetic testing and indeed, in the case of married couples using ART, even when we know he is not genetically related. And once you start carving out exceptions, you find it gets more and more complicated.

      If you reject the notion that genetics is the defining factor for parenthood, as I do, then you have to come up with something else. Intent is one possibility. Function is another. But each of these will clearly be messier and complicated in its own way.

      That’s basically why I can keep a blog running on the topic for so long, I think.

      BTW, I’m about to write a new post on recent Maryland case that raises some questions about genetics and parenthood. I’d love to know what you think about the case, once I get the post written and up there.

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