Sperm is Still Cheap: Reconsidering the Law's Male-Centric Approach to Embryo Disputes after Thirty Years of Jurisprudence
87 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2022 Last revised: 2 Mar 2023
Date Written: 2022
Few issues in a divorce may be as emotionally charged, or have such long-term consequences, as disputes over the control of embryos a couple had created and cryopreserved during their marriage. Most men in this scenario, still able to have children naturally, have sought to prevent their ex-wives from having a child they no longer desire. For many women, though, the embryos reflect their best, and perhaps only, opportunity to have a child. The interests could not be more polar, yet there can be no middle ground—one party’s interests must yield to the other. To date, appellate courts in one-third of the states have addressed this issue and have overwhelmingly sided with the party seeking to avoid parenthood, expressly adopting a presumption against the use of the embryos. Only twice in nineteen cases has a court awarded the embryos to the party seeking to use them. Though gender neutral on its face, the effect of this presumption has disproportionately favored men. Courts have privileged men’s interests in avoiding the purely cognitive burdens of genetic parenthood, even when freed from any responsibilities of legal parenthood, above women’s interests and investments in experiencing genetic, gestational, and legal parenthood. This Article reconsiders courts’ and scholars’ prior arguments in support of the presumption and rejects that the outcomes simply reflect inherent biological differences between the sexes. Rather, the Article analyzes the decisions of the 125 judges who have now ruled on this issue, uncovers a distinct difference in outcome based on the judge’s gender, and argues the prevailing presumption against use reflects an implicit gender bias among judges. In doing so, the Article situates this issue as the latest in a long-line of male-centric approaches in American law to reproductive rights, autonomy, and parental responsibilities. As these cases are certain to increase in the coming years, this Article seeks to raise the consciousness of judges and legislators in the majority of states still to address the issue and to move the law toward a true balancing of both parties’ interests.
Keywords: ART; assisted reproductive technology; family law; embryo disposition; cryopreservation; gender bias; divorce; estate planning
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