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Alabama Court’s Ruling That Embryos Are Children Opens Up A Host Of Other Legal Issues, Including Parental Rights

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Jamie Heard’s IVF process was halted following the Alabama Supreme Court decision in February 2024. The Washington Post/Contributor

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 21, 2024, that the word “child” also means frozen embryos, which are typically implanted via in vitro fertilization.

Within a week of the decision, three of the state’s seven IVF clinics temporarily stopped all IVF services. Three others announced they would no longer discard any embryos in storage. Spokespeople for the clinics said they were worried that the Supreme Court decision meant that they would be liable for wrongful death if any embryos were destroyed, even as part of normal clinic operations.

Patients planning to undergo IVF treatment at the clinics that stopped services were devastated.

One woman, Gabrielle Goidel, was planning IVF after three previous pregnancies ended in miscarriage. The fertility clinic told her that it could move forward with her scheduled egg retrieval, but it was not sure if doctors could then create or store embryos made with her eggs. Goidel said it was “absolutely my worst fear,” and she found a Texas clinic that could continue her treatment.

In response to confusion about whether IVF services in Alabama could legally continue, the Alabama Legislature passed a law exempting people who receive or provide IVF services from legal liability. After Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law on March 6, two of the clinics that had paused IVF procedures said that they would resume providing IVF.

But the court decision still creates a confusing, murky zone for people in Alabama who are considering IVF or already have embryos stored. I am a law professor who has written about legal disputes over frozen embryos. The Alabama Supreme Court’s decision contradicts all of the previous lawsuits across the country that are fights over stored embryos.

A woman wearing a pink cardigan reaches toward a toddler, who is held by a man next to her.
Elissa Smith walks with her husband, Taylor Smith, and their daughter in Birmingham, Ala., on March 3, 2024, shortly after her IVF treatments were halted.
The Washington Post/Contributor

What led to the Alabama case

The Alabama Supreme Court case arose out of unusual circumstances. In 2020, a hospital patient walked through an unlocked door into a fertility clinic housed within the hospital, worked to find a container of frozen embryos and intentionally dropped it on the floor.

It is easy to sympathize with the potential parents whose embryos were destroyed in this case. But not all destruction of embryos is a tragedy.

Fertility clinics routinely destroy frozen embryos, with the permission of the intended parents. Couples who undergo IVF often create more frozen embryos than they implant, leaving extra embryos in storage. As many as 1 million embryos are currently in storage across the country. For various reasons, a couple or person may choose to have the fertility clinic destroy their embryos.

A thorny question arises, however, if the couple breaks up and disagrees about what to do with frozen embryos in storage.

How courts manage embryo conflict

In the disagreements about embryos that have ended up in court, typically one person wants to have the embryos implanted in the hopes of a successful pregnancy. The other person usually wants the stored embryos destroyed.

Courts faced with this question have, in the past, considered whatever the contract with the fertility clinic says. This might give one person control over the embryos, or say that the clinic should destroy the embryos if the spouses divorce.

Another rule of thumb only allows embryos to be implanted if both intended parents agree.

Finally, some courts consider what each potential parent’s interests are and favor the stronger case. Courts have been particularly likely to use this approach when one person is particularly sympathetic – for example, a woman who went through IVF after she was diagnosed with cancer that left her infertile. The frozen embryos were her last chance at becoming a biological mother.

No matter what method a court uses to weigh cases, every court in every state has, until the Alabama ruling, treated frozen embryos as property, not as children.

A Black woman with black hair and red highlights smiles and looks to the side, standing next to a blonde white woman, also wearing formal clothing.
Latorya Beasley, whose IVF embryo transfer was canceled after the Alabama Supreme Court decision, attended the State of the Union address on March 7, 2024.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

A new legal territory

The Alabama court’s decision throws all of this precedent into question.

The court was examining a specific law and answering whether the word “child” in the statute also applied to frozen embryos. According to the court, the “natural, ordinary, commonly understood meaning” of the word “child” includes embryos.

Additionally, the court pointed to the Alabama state constitution, which includes a section on the “sanctity of unborn life.” The court explained that the constitution directed it to treat unborn and born children equally. This means that, according to the court, anywhere the world “child” appears in Alabama law, frozen embryos could be included.

If “child” means frozen embryos across Alabama law, then it would be illegal to treat embryos as property. Instead, if former spouses disagree about what to do with frozen embryos, courts should use the same laws that apply if divorcing parents are fighting over custody of a child. This would mean that courts would ask what would be in the best interest of the embryos when determining their fate.

This confusion is understandably alarming to people in Alabama with frozen embryos in storage.

One doctor with Alabama Fertility Specialists reported that over 30 patients contacted her clinic shortly after the Alabama court decision came out, asking what to do. Caroline Veazey, who had six embryos in storage in Alabama, started an online fundraiser to help her pay to move her embryos into storage in a different state.

This ambiguity could stretch even further into other state agencies, like child protective services. Alabama law says that failure to provide medical treatment is neglect. It is easy to imagine an argument that indefinitely storing or destroying a frozen embryo is failing to provide the medical treatment of implantation into the uterus of someone hoping to become pregnant.

If child protective services were to adopt such a position, the state could argue that the people who created stored embryos had neglected their “children.” The state could then treat frozen embryos like neglected children: take them away from their “parents” and use embryo adoption programs to find them new homes.

Democrats in the Alabama House of Representatives have introduced a bill that says the word “child” should not include embryos for any purpose under state law. This bill has yet to move forward.

Alabama’s decision, though, has prompted concern that other state courts could follow its lead. Birmingham resident Kristia Rumbley, for example, said that she is trying to move her two stored embryos out of the United States entirely. “I don’t want to risk anybody else making decisions for our embryos,” Rumbley said.

The Conversation

Dara E. Purvis is affiliated with Population Connection Action Fund.

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‘I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.’: What O.J. Simpson’s Life Showed About Transcending Race And Being Trapped By It

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O.J. Simpson listens to testimony during his 1995 trial, in which he was acquitted of murder charges. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

It’s still unclear when – or if – O.J. Simpson actually said the words that rapper Jay-Z attributed to him in his 2017 Grammy-nominated song “The Story of O.J.”

But the words stuck and came to symbolize the complicated relationship the Black community had with Simpson, who died on April 11, 2024, from complications of prostate cancer. He was 76 years old.

“I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” Jay-Z wrote.

Indeed, O.J. did transcend race. He had the life of the rich and famous that many Black and white people could only dream of. In the early 1990s, the former professional football player and Hollywood actor was earning US$55,000 per month and had a net worth of nearly $11 million, according to court records.

But it all came crashing down on June 12, 1994, after the vicious killing of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

Simpson was charged in both murders and during the trial became the epitome of Black, male toxicity. Though acquitted – in large part because of the Los Angeles Police Department’s racist history of police brutality – his trial exposed the racial divisions within America and the deep-seated resentment that many Black people had for the U.S. criminal justice system.

As a scholar of ethnic studies, I followed the case of O.J. Simpson as it unfolded and understood the jubilation that many Black people felt after his acquittal. I also understood that jubilation was more about the fairness of the criminal justice system than it ever was about O.J.

The rise of a Black media star

During the early 1960s, Orenthal James Simpson was a cultural hero for millions of Black boys and girls who saw him dominate college football as a star running back for the University of Southern California. He led the team to a national championship in 1968 and earned a Heisman Trophy, the sport’s highest award.

A Black man stands next to a white woman as they pose for a photograph.
O.J. Simpson and his wife Nicole Brown Simpson attend a party in New York City in 1993.
Rose Hartman/Getty Images

Simpson went on to have a spectacular professional football career before turning his star power to Hollywood movies and commercials, the most memorable of which saw him running through an airports to get a Hertz rental car.

Tragic fall

All of that stardom made Simpson’s arrest on June 17, 1994, even more bizarre.

I recall watching the slow-moving chase of the white Ford Bronco in which Simpson fled, followed by dozens of police cars on a Los Angeles highway. Inside the Bronco, Simpson held a gun to his head.

Given his behavior, Simpson appeared to be guilty in the court of public opinion. But during the trial, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran was able to shift the focus of the case away from Simpson’s erratic behavior and to the racist behavior of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A photograph of a Black man taken by the Los Angeles police.
O.J. Simpson following his arrest in Los Angeles on June 17, 1994.
Kypros/Getty Images

In what was dubbed by media analysts “the trial of the century,” Cochran was able to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury after he detailed the numerous forensic mistakes that Los Angeles police made in handling evidence in the case. Cochran’s defense ended with Simpson trying on a pair of gloves that prosecutors claimed were used in the murders.

“If they don’t fit, you must acquit,” Cochran told the jury.

They didn’t fit.

The Simpson trial came at a time when police brutality in Los Angeles had become the subject of national media attention after the March 1991 beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers. A year later, on April 29, 1992, a jury found the four officers not guilty, and that verdict triggered days of riots in Los Angeles.

In my view, this backdrop was partly the reason why Black people saw Simpson as yet another Black man falsely charged with – and often lynched for – a crime involving a white woman.

No longer a symbol of the American dream, O.J. became the black face of domestic violence and a tragic lesson on the flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The Conversation

Rodney Coates does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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A Monumental Case, Unfolding In A Court Of Law And A Court Of Public Opinion – Trump Goes On Trial

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Former President Donald Trump stands trial on April 15, 2024. Yuki Iwamura//AFP via Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump’s New York trial on charges related to paying hush money to an adult film star begins on April 15, 2024. The Conversation U.S. asked Tim Bakken, a former New York prosecutor and now a legal scholar teaching at West Point, and Karrin Vasby Anderson, a political communication expert at Colorado State University, to set the scene from each of their perspectives.

It will be a “monumental drama” inside and outside the courtroom, said Bakken. Anderson adds, “It’s not just what happens inside the courtroom, but how we manage it outside the courtroom, that will be equally consequential for us as a nation.”

Bakken: The scene is very dramatic: A former president is on trial, for the first time. Trump is facing relatively minor charges that are not complex, and the evidence should not require a complex presentation. But the aura surrounding the introduction of the evidence has rarely occurred in world or U.S. history. And that’s not an overstatement.

Trump has been charged with over 30 counts of filing a false document. There’s just one basic charge: that he filed a false document and enlisted other people in his organization to help him file the false document to conceal the fact that he had paid money to Stormy Daniels to urge her not to speak up about his relationship with her.

A gray-haired man in a dress shirt and tie, sitting in a study.
Juan M. Merchan, the judge who will preside over Donald Trump’s hush money trial.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Anderson: The rhetorical scene is complicated. Let’s break it into three separate scenes.

The first is sort of inside the courtroom, where there’s a modicum of moderation, particularly from Trump’s lawyers when speaking on his behalf. They speak of him as if he is like any other former U.S. president. There’s no recognition of the ways in which Trump has not conducted himself like past U.S. presidents, both in office and after leaving the White House.

The second stage is how Trump interacts with the judicial system in nonjudicial, nondemocratic ways. He’s doing a lot of communication outside of the courtroom, and that’s going to influence the way that we understand the case as it is unfolding.

One of the reasons why Trump has been subjected to a number of gag orders is because his rhetoric outside the courtroom appears to be trying to potentially intimidate jurors. If it’s not outright intimidation, then he’s openly trying to cast doubt by spreading misinformation and false information about the people who are involved in the case, including judges and their families.

The third scene is what Trump does on Truth Social, his social media platform, and at his rallies, which is what every authoritarian does: their rhetorical formula. They use their communication to destabilize democratic institutions, dehumanize opponents and scapegoat others. The institution that Trump is looking to destabilize with his pronouncements at rallies and on social media is the judiciary.

How can a judge keep control of a trial when all of this is happening?

Bakken: From what I’ve observed of Trump, once he enters a courtroom or is inside a legal proceeding, there doesn’t seem to be any issue in regard to misbehavior. He’s a practical person in that regard. But he goes just about as far as he can.

Anderson: Inside the courtroom, he and his lawyers are going to present him as a sort of normal, typical defendant, remarkable only in that he is a former president. When it is to his advantage to use democratic norms strategically, he will. But he doesn’t abide by them; he weaponizes them. What he’s really doing inside the courtroom is posing as someone who doesn’t need to have multiple gag orders applied.

Bakken: Everybody has fear in a criminal legal proceeding. You’re facing an institution that can imprison you. But the things that Trump is doing outside the courtroom, at least recently, seem to reflect his concern that he cannot control a proceeding. How does a person deal with the fear that emanates when somebody else has control over you? Some people are more meticulous and will crouch. Other people – there are few of these because the stakes are very high – will strike back. And that’s who Trump is. He’s learned throughout his life that the way he can survive is to strike back at people.

Anderson: Trump recently posted, in reference to the judge in his upcoming trial, “If this Partisan Hack wants to put me in the ‘clink’ for speaking the open and obvious TRUTH, I will gladly become a Modern Day Nelson Mandela – It will be my GREAT HONOR.”

Right there, he’s hedging his bets. He doesn’t want to go to jail. What he has to do is get ahead of that message and further destabilize the democratic norms, by saying essentially, “Well, if I get convicted, it’s not me getting convicted in a court of law. It’s me getting thrown in the clink like Nelson Mandela.”

A wood-paneled courtroom.
Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom in New York.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Bakken: There are a lot of people who comment on the legal system and say exactly the same things that Trump does. Very few will accuse those people of being authoritarian.

I’m certainly not an advocate of Trump or the district attorney in this case – I’m trying to look at it neutrally. And in any number of controversial cases going back decades, we can see people arguing that the system is unfair.

Trump is on a larger stage, but he’s essentially saying the same things that 50 out of 100 people would say in downtown New York City, where his courtroom will be. They’ll say the system is rigged. I heard that, of course, as a prosecutor, and I continue to hear that on an almost daily basis from people when they comment about the legal system.

Anderson: Trump does play the victim and the martyr, saying the system is unjust and charges against him are politically motivated.

But an authoritarian doesn’t stop there. They flip it. So it goes seamlessly, both at rallies and in social media, from “Look at me, I’m like Nelson Mandela, they’re going to throw me in jail,” to “If you don’t want this terrible system to be exploiting you, you’ve got to elect me, I alone can fix it.” He pairs those two things. That’s one of the key indicators that this is not just victim rhetoric; it’s actually authoritarian rhetoric.

Since 2015, there’s been a dramatic uptick in attacks on judges. That’s a telltale sign that Trump is not just critiquing the system or even just playing the victim. He is flipping that to say, we need to fight back using these other means, and his supporters are hearing that message and they’re threatening judges.

Some last thoughts from each of you?

Bakken: The case will be a monumental drama not only inside the courtroom, but outside the courtroom. Whether the trial can go off the way trials have normally gone off is a real test of our country and our legal system. And if it does, then we can have some confidence that Trump’s extracurricular statements and admonitions have not affected the jurors.

Anderson: I hope that as people are paying attention to the trial, they see themselves as actors and participants in creating whatever culture is going to come out of this. It’s not just what happens inside the courtroom, but how we manage it outside the courtroom, that will be equally consequential for us as a nation.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The Unfinished Business Of John F. Kennedy’s Vision For World Peace

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John and Jackie Kennedy in Paris in May 1961. Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Less than a week after her husband’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Jackie Kennedy granted an interview with esteemed political writer Theodore White for Life magazine, one of the leading national publications of its day.

Determined to protect the legacy of the fallen president, Jackie likened the unfulfilled promise of his short-lived administration to the mythical days of King Arthur’s court as portrayed in “Camelot,” a popular Broadway musical at the time and one of Kennedy’s favorites.

“Don’t let it be forgot,” Kennedy told White, “that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot.”

Though historians have since revealed many of Kennedy’s shortcomings, one fact is undeniable. From his 1960 campaign against Richard Nixon to his little more than 1,000 days as president, Kennedy’s boldness defined the times.

In my view as a scholar of Kennedy’s life, he set the modern-day standard for public service that is all but absent in the 2024 presidential election dominated by the legal woes of Donald Trump and the age of 81-year-old President Joe Biden.

Kennedy’s lofty rhetoric, coupled with his energetic youth, propelled the nation into what he termed the “New Frontier,” the campaign slogan he used to inspire ordinary citizens to make the world a better place at a time of Cold War nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

“Let us begin anew … remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof,” Kennedy said during his inaugural address in 1961. “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Decorated war hero

Part of the Camelot myth starts with Kennedy’s military service during World War II.

Due to a myriad of illnesses, Kennedy was deemed unfit to join the U.S. Army and was able to serve in the Navy only after his father, the wealthy businessman Joseph Kennedy who was U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during the early war years, intervened on his behalf. Shortly after joining the Navy, Kennedy became commander of a patrol torpedo boat stationed near the Solomon Islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.

A white man is wearing a military uniform and has his hands in his lap as he poses for a photograph.
A 1941 portrait of John F. Kennedy wearing his U.S. Navy uniform. Photo by Frank Turgent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Frank Turgent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Aug. 2, 1943, a Japanese destroyer rammed his boat and sliced it in half, immediately killing two of his men. Kennedy later told an interviewer that when he saw the destroyer pass in front of him he thought, “This is how it feels to be killed.”

The 26-year-old Kennedy led his crew of 11 survivors on a 3-mile swim while towing a badly burned crew member to safety by holding a strap of a life vest between his teeth.

After several days of hiding on an uninhabited island with very little food and water, he was able to get help by etching a message on a coconut that was given to two Solomon Islanders who were patrolling the area in a canoe for Allied forces. They brought the message to a nearby British base, and Kennedy and his men were subsequently rescued.

Once safe, Kennedy sent a note home to his family saying that many people thought they were dead, but “fortunately they misjudged the durability of a Kennedy.”

Kennedy received a Purple Heart medal for being wounded in combat and remains the only U.S. president to receive the honor. JFK also earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his “extremely heroic conduct” after his boat was sunk.

That coconut was later set on a wooden base and used as a paper weight on Kennedy’s desk after his narrow victory over Republican Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.

Baptism by fire

Even though he stumbled in his first year as president, Kennedy learned, made changes and initiated bold measures such as a moral stand on civil rights and a plan for peace with the Soviet Union.

Kennedy’s first major blunder was the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Troubled by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his relationship with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy approved a U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island by using about 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles who also wanted to overthrow Castro. The attempted coup was launched on April 17, 1961, and was defeated in less than two days by Cuban armed forces.

An elderly man with a balding head talks with a younger man as they sit near each in two chairs.
President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev meet in Vienna, Austria, on June 3, 1961.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The botched invasion led Khrushchev to believe that Kennedy was young, naive and weak. That line of thinking played out two months later at the Vienna summit, where the Soviet leader demanded the removal of U.S. troops from West Berlin.

Kennedy refused, but Khrushchev retaliated by starting construction of the Berlin Wall, which became the symbol of the Cold War divisions between Western European democracies and Eastern European countries controlled by communist governments.

An unfulfilled legacy

Kennedy was a Cold Warrior, but he was also a realist.

In October 1962, Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba that could strike the U.S. Kennedy’s advisers urged him to invade Cuba, this time using U.S. military forces.

On the brink of nuclear war, Kennedy ignored his advisers and enacted a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent the Soviet Union from shipping any more military supplies to Castro. It was a bold move that went against Cold War orthodoxy, which would have called for a stronger response to Khrushchev’s actions. Instead, the crisis made it clear that both sides feared nuclear retaliation from the other.

Eight months later, on June 11, 1963, Kennedy gave a speech at American University that proposed peace with the Soviet Union.

“I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living,” he told the crowd. “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

A group of people are sitting in the sun as they ride in a car that doesn't have a top.
Moments before the president’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the Kennedys join Texas Gov. John Connally in a ride through Dallas, Texas.
Corbis via Getty Images

In my view, this speech is perhaps his greatest legacy, because it stressed that peace was a process and led to a limited nuclear test ban treaty. Signed in 1963 by the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the agreement prohibited tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater.

It also put Kennedy and Khrushchev on a path to end Cold War tensions between the two superpowers. Those negotiations came to an abrupt halt after Kennedy’s assassination. The Cold War lasted for another 30 years until Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down and communist regimes in Eastern Europe were booted out after free elections.

He served only 1,036 days as president, and much like the myth of Camelot, Kennedy’s legacy remains an unfulfilled dream for peace around the world.

The Conversation

Philip A. Goduti, Jr. does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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