CLEVELAND - When does human life begin? That was the central issue at hand during arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit filed against University Hospitals by a family that lost embryos in its fertility clinic failure.
In the suit, Wendy Penniman contends three embryos she lost when a cryogenic tank failed at Ahuja Medical Center last March were human lives. In all, more than 4,000 eggs and embryos were destroyed, prompting dozens of lawsuits against UH.
"These are human beings, and I believe that in my heart," Penniman said. "This isn't a financial thing. These are our children."
Penniman appealed to Ohio's Eighth District Court of Appeals after a lower court judge ruled embryos are not people. Attorneys for Penniman and the hospital system each argued before a three-judge panel Wednesday afternoon.
"The law is not clear on when life begins," Penniman's attorney, Bruce Taubman, argued.
He said scientific advances have made past case law and legal precedent antiquated, noting IVF procedures weren't around at the time the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case Roe v. Wade in 1973.
"These frozen embryos, which have all the genetic makeup of human life, are entitled to bring an action," Taubman argued.
Attorneys for University Hospitals contend the trial court ruled properly in determining an embryo is not defined as a person under current Ohio law.
"Under Ohio law, an embryo is not, itself, a person, and the reason is viability under the law is consistently defined in terms of the ability of a fetus to live independently outside the womb," said Benjamin Sasse, an attorney for University Hospitals. "An embryo is not yet a fetus and while cryopreserved at -160 degrees centigrade, it cannot live outside the womb."
Judge Sean Gallagher noted that there are three bills currently in the state legislature dealing with the viability of embryos, including the 'Heartbeat Bill.'
The panel will prepare a written decision and could remand the case back to the trial court, decide the case or affirm the trial's court ruling.
"We're not seeking financial damages," Taubman said. "We're seeking an order that indicates when life begins."
Penniman said she'll continue fighting for what was lost.
"We created these and went through so much to get these embryo in just time, love, effort, money, everything we put into this," Penniman said. "To imagine they weren't children at any point in time to anybody, that's all we thought they were. They're our kids."