A Quincy couple is suing Brigham and Women’s Hospital for Massachusetts personal injury, including negligence, emotional injury, and breach of contract. The hospital had accidentally destroyed all 13 frozen embryos that the plaintiffs, Julie and Michael Norton, had placed in their care. Now, the Nortons are seeking $5 million in personal injury damages.
Julie, now 37, and Michael, now 35, decided to freeze the embryos in 2001 after Julie was diagnosed with Stage III rectal/colon cancer, which is an advanced form of cancer. They were worried that her cancer treatment would make it hard for her to get pregnant later.
The embryos were supposed to be implanted in Julie when she was well enough. In 2004, doctors determined that the cancer treatment had damaged her uterus too much for her to be able to carry embryos to full term. In 2006, assisted reproductive technologies director Dr. Elizabeth Ginsburg wrote the couple to let them know that their consent that the hospital store the embryos expired in 2004.
The Nortons then wrote to Embryology Laboratory director Kathy Jackson to tell her that they planned to use the embryos within two years and reminded the hospital of Julie’s cancer patient status. The hospital had consented to store the embryos indefinitely because Julie was one of their cancer patients. Jackson wrote back, assuring them the embryos were safe.
This year, the embryos were scheduled to be implanted in a surrogate. In March, two days before the procedure, the Nortons were told that the hospital had destroyed all of their embryos. Apparently, the embryos were discarded on August 10, 2006 with the authorization of Brigham. “Abandonment” was cited as the cause of disposal.
There are at least 400,000 frozen embryos that are stored in US clinics. Although it is always up to the patient to decide what to do with embryos they decide not to use, many clinics are concerned with what to do with embryos that are abandoned or unclaimed.
One reason that many embryos go unclaimed is that a couple may decide that they no longer want to have children but they are reluctant to destroy or get rid of the embryos. A December 2008 New York Times article says that 53% of patients don’t want to donate their unused embryos to other couples because they don’t want strangers bringing up their children. 23% would like to have the embryos stay frozen. 66% would be willing to donate the embryos for research but that option isn’t always available.
The Norton’s Massachusetts personal injury lawsuit, filed in Norfolk Superior Court, names Brigham and Women’s Hospital, two lab managers, and the assisted reproductive technologies director as its defendants. The hospital is refusing to comment on the personal injury lawsuit but has released a statement apologizing to the Nortons for the medical error, acknowledging that it accidentally disposed of the couple’s embryos, and vowing to improve its procedures and policies so that this kind of medical mistake doesn’t happen again.
What should be done with excess frozen embryos?, The Seattle Times, October 12, 2008