HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Friday, April 22, 2005

New Article by Philip Peters

Peters_1  Professor Philip G. Peters, Ruth L. Hulston Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law has a new and timely article entitled, "The Meaning of Human Conception."  The abstract follows:


On February 4th, 2005, an Illinois court ruled that frozen embryos are human beings, thereby exposing a fertility clinic to wrongful death liability for accidentally discarding several of them. Although the case was widely depicted as novel, it was actually only the latest in a series of legislative enactments, judicial opinions, and administrative rulings that extend a variety of legal protections to embryos from the moment of conception.

Contrary to common assumption, however, there is no "moment" of human conception. Instead, conception is a process extending over several days and several cell divisions. In this Article, I argue that the conception is not complete until the embryonic genome begins to function. Although the freshly inseminated egg possesses all of the raw materials from which the embryo's future genome will be assembled, that potential is not realized until, at the eight-cell stage, the nuclear DNA of mother and father are fused and commence functioning as an integrated unit.

Prior to that, a new human life is being conceived, but has not yet been conceived Much will turn on whether the courts choose this definition of conception or one that occurs much earlier, such as insemination of the ovum by a sperm. That is because many important activities take place between insemination of the egg and activation of the embryonic genome. They include the culling of poor quality in vitro embryos prior to implantation, the destruction of pre-activation embryos in scientific research, the extraction and destruction of totipotent cells for purposes of prenatal genetic diagnosis, and even the use of certain emergency contraceptives. In addition, the definition of conception will directly affect disputes over the status and disposition of the 400,000 frozen embryos lying in cold storage across the country, many of which were frozen before genome activation. The definition that I propose will place these activities outside the scope of the life-begins-at-conception laws. Although many people will find this a surprising conclusion, it is, I contend, dictated by the gradual nature of the transformation taking place inside the inseminated egg.


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