July 5, 2022

Orphaned embryos in the care of an orphan

Apologies for overlooking this story from seven years ago. But it is so thought-provoking that it deserves to be reported. I stumbled across it in Above the Law, a blog which sometimes deals with reproductive issues, like the legal conundrums involved in storing surplus embryos.

The story begins in August 2012 in Dallas. An Ethiopian couple who operated a popular restaurant, Yayehyirad Lemma, 40, and Yenenesh Desta, 31, were gunned down on their front porch for no apparent reason. It turned out that another Ethiopian had been obsessed with Desta and killed her and her husband because they had “disrespected” him. The murderer was jailed for life without parole.

It later emerged that the couple had left 11 embryos frozen in an IVF clinic. What was to become of them? A probate court found that because his parents died without leaving a will, their 2-year-old son should “inherit” the embryos – who are his siblings. When he reaches 18, he will have to decide whether to continue paying storage fees, implant them in a surrogate mother, donate them for research, or discard them.

The late legal scholar John A. Robertson wrote an analysis of this obscure case in 2014. His conclusion was that: “the embryos are part of his deceased parents’ estate and as heir he is entitled to have them maintained for his dispositional control until he is 18. The same outcome should occur whatever the age of the heir. Making sure that persons creating embryos give directions for what should be done with embryos if they both die will avoid such situations in the future.”

It’s a funny world in which an 18-year-old is forced to decide whether his 11 brothers and sisters should live or die after 16 years of suspended animation in a tank of liquid nitrogen. The couple’s son comes of age in about 2028.