Timothy Goodwin and Jessica Bilbao had undergone in-vitro fertilization while they were legally married, leading to the birth of a child. They decided to cryogenically preserve and store the rest of their embryonic children at a fertility clinic for future implantation. In the process, they made a contract with the clinic that in the event of divorce the embryos would be discarded.
When Bilbao filed for divorce in 2016, a settlement was held up by Goodwin's decision to repudiate the agreement and oppose the destruction of their remaining (frozen) offspring. He decided he wanted their continued preservation in case he and Bilbao were to reconcile. As an alternative he was willing to donate them to another couple for them to adopt and raise. Bilbao maintained her wish that the embryos be "discarded in accordance with the storage agreement."
A lower court had ruled that the contract they made with the fertility clinic was invalid and unenforceable, but granted Bilbao legal possession of the embryos, stating that she had the stronger claim. The state Supreme Court subsequently ruled the original contract with the clinic was valid.
In his appeal, Goodwin argued that an embryo is not property and that, even if it were, the lower court should have ruled in his favor "as the party seeking to preserve the pre-embryos because they are human beings."
Labeling them "pre-embryos," the court said it would not consider questions about preserving human life, or what to do in future cases if no agreement is made.
"Because we conclude that the parties in this case had an enforceable agreement," the court stated, "we do not decide what a court must do in the absence of an enforceable agreement."
"For example," it continued, "we leave for another day whether, in the absence of an enforceable agreement, balancing or contemporaneous mutual consent is the appropriate approach, and what the details of such an approach would entail."
Justifying their use of the term "pre-embryo," the court claimed in a footnote: "Pre-embryo is a medically accurate term for a zygote or fertilized egg that has not been implanted in a uterus."
Joseph Secola, Goodwin's attorney, said the court should have at least ordered a hearing to determine if the embryos had rights as people. "Just relying on fact that there is a contract," he said, "given that human life is present, is just too simplistic. That's where I disagree with the court."
Decrying society's use of technology without consideration of unforeseen consequences, Secola said, "[T]he technology seems to outrun our ability to consider all the issues with it."
Catholic teaching recognizes several moral problems within the case that objectively violate natural law.
Putting aside the doctrine that marriage is indissoluble, in-vitro fertilization separates the unitive from the procreative significance of the marital act and, in effect, manufactures human beings by technological instruments, whereas spouses are called instead to accept the gift of a child as the fruit of the marital embrace.
For those with the cross of infertility, painful as it may be, adoption and other fulfilling ways to love are taught as morally upright options.
Embryo adoption is legitimately being debated among theologians. The notion of a wife pregnant with another man's (and woman's) child is seen by some as an infringement on the sanctity of marriage. Others claim the sanctity of human life and the innocence of the victims must also be taken into consideration.
Finally, the intentional killing of any innocent human being, even if unborn or frozen, is intrinsically evil and objectively murder.
As long as those with power and self-interest are allowed to manipulate the language to popularize scientifically unsound concepts like "pre-embryo," civil law will fail to protect the innocent.