When does life begin?

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With advances in medical technology has come a consequence of new medical and legal issues. It seems that laws cannot be written fast enough to keep up with the new problems posed by technology. The propositions for creating new laws are numerous but decisions are only just beginning to be made.

When a couple in Tennessee, Mary Sue Davis and Junior Davis, decided to get a divorce, a new ethical question was introduced into the courts of law. When does a human life begin? Mary Sue Davis, who is infertile, had had a series of complications with pregnancy and decided to get help from an infertility clinic. As the couple wanted very much to have children, they had decided to attempt in vitro fertilization, a process by which a husband's sperm and his wife's egg are fertilized in a petri dish, outside the woman body. The embryo, the fertilized egg, is then implanted into the woman's body. Because the Davises had experienced six previous unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilization, their doctors recommended freezing some of Mrs. Davis's successfully fertilized eggs. With this procedure, the eggs could later be thawed to be implanted in Mrs. Davis's uterine cavity during any of her ovulation cycles.

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But, on February 23, 1989, Mr. Davis filed for a divorce, marking the first legal battle over frozen embryos produced through in vitro fertilization. Just as children are fought over in legal custody cases, the court had to decide who had the right to the fertilized eggs. Mrs. Davis had tried to become pregnant for years and did not want the eggs disposed of. She had spent too much time and energy on trying to get pregnant and was not willing to abandon her last chance of having children. Mr. Davis, on the other hand, was not interested in seeing the eggs "hatch," as he did not want to see his wife bear his children after their divorce.

The Davises' case has spawned a series of new cases involving the rights to embryos, as well as a national debate over how we view life. Some argue that the frozen embryos, consisting of only undifferentiated cells, cannot be viewed as human beings as they have not yet formed into a unique individual. Others argue that life starts at conception, so that the moment the egg is fertilized in a petri dish, what is produced must be viewed as a human being. As the couple began to argue over the fertilized eggs, the judge in the divorce trial was being asked to do medical, legal, and ethical somersaults in deciding whether the Davises' embryos were just frozen lumps, marital property waiting to be divided up, or persons with some rights to legal protection. His decision would have even further implications for abortion and right-to-life advocates. After listening to both the husband and wife contending for the right to their embryos, the Tennessee Circuit Court judge ruled that the embryos were people, not property, and they were turned over to the mother. Mr. Davis later announced that he would appeal the court decision.