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In judge's ruling, test-tube embryo is a person

Wrongful-death case seen as possible threat to fertility industry

CHICAGO -- All Alison Miller and Todd Parrish wanted was to become parents. But when a fertility clinic did not preserve a healthy embryo they had hoped would one day become their child, they sued for wrongful death.

A judge refused to dismiss their case, ruling in effect that a test-tube embryo is a human being and that the suit can go forward.

Though most legal specialists believe the ruling will be overturned, some in the fertility business worry it could have a chilling effect, threatening everything from in vitro fertilization to abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.

''If the decision stands, it could essentially end in vitro fertilization," said Dr. Robert Schenken, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Few doctors would risk offering the procedure if any accident that harmed the embryo could result in a wrongful death lawsuit, said Schenken, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas in San Antonio.

He said the society, a professional group for fertility doctors, is considering filing a court brief opposing the ruling Friday by Cook County Judge Jeffrey Lawrence.

The lawyer for the clinic, James Kopriva, declined to say if an appeal is planned, but added, ''We are weighing our options. We disagree with the court's decision and do not believe Illinois law provides for the remedy provided by the court."

In a letter to the couple in June 2000, Dr. Norbert Gleicher, director of the Center for Human Reproduction, said an employee had failed to put an embryo in frozen storage and he apologized for ''this oversight."

If the ruling for the couple holds, it would have no legal standing outside Illinois. However, it could provide impetus for groups elsewhere to push an agenda opposing both abortion rights and stem cell research, said Northwestern University law professor Victor Rosenblum, an abortion foe who has worked with antiabortion activists.

''I certainly admire the initiative of the Cook County judge in taking this step," but it probably will not survive any appeals attempts, Rosenblum said.

The judge refers in his ruling to an Illinois statute that implies that wrongful death lawsuits can be filed on behalf of the unborn regardless of age.

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