Virginia Judge Rules Embryos Are Property, ‘Chattel’ Using Slavery Law
Embryo selection for IVF, light micrograph.
Credit: Science Photo Library – ZEPHYR via Getty Images.

A Virginia judge ruled last month that frozen embryos can be considered property, a decision based in-part on a 19th century slavery law, according to a new report. 

The ruling was part of a dispute between a divorced couple who both hope to gain control over two frozen embryos, which were created by Honeyhline Heidemann and Jason Heidemann during their marriage, the Associated Press reported this week. 

“Upon independent research, this court was unable to find any Virginia law prohibiting the purchase or sale of human embryo, nor has either party cited a federal law prohibiting the activity,” Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Richard Gardiner wrote in a ruling related to the battle over the embryos. “As there is no prohibition on the sale of human embryos, they may [be] valued and sold, and thus may be considered ‘goods or chattels’ within the meaning of Code § 8.01-93.”

Since the couple split, Honeyhline has hoped to move forward with using the embryos, but Jason has sought to block her saying that implanting the embryos “would force Mr. Heidemann to procreate against his wishes and therefore violate his constitutional right to procreational autonomy.”

According to a 2015 contract that the couple had drawn up, they “own any stored embryos jointly.”

While Gardiner has not made a decision on Jason’s procreational autonomy claim, he did rule that the embryos could be viewed as property. His ruling in part relied on a Virginia law from the 1800s that regulated “goods and chattel,” which included slaves at the time the law was written. 

“I would like to think that the bench and the bar would be seeking more modern precedent,” said Solomon Ashby, president of the Old Dominion Bar Association. 

A human embryo is typically frozen very soon after fertilization before the unborn child has been able to develop much. 

In recent months, some conservatives have considered or voiced support for increasing protection for embryos and prohibiting the disposal of embryos as pro-life organizations have often raised concerns about what happens to embryos that do not end up being implanted. 

Gardiner’s ruling to treat embryos as property could draw the attention of pro-lifers, who have often compared slavery and abortion over their callous treatment of human life. 

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