Frozen embryos do not enjoy a constitutionally protected right to life, an Irish judge ruled on Wednesday in a landmark case that had a separated husband and wife on opposite sides.
High Court Justice Brian McGovern said Ireland's 1983 constitutional amendment banning abortion -- which committed the state to defend the right to life of "the unborn" -- did not mean that the woman could implant the couple's fertilized eggs into her womb against her husband's will.
McGovern previously ruled in July that the 41-year-old woman's estranged husband had legally withheld consent for using the embryos. The man, 44, said he did not want to become a parent again against his will.
The three embryos were kept in cold storage as part of a successful in vitro fertilization treatment that produced a baby daughter in 2002. The couple separated shortly thereafter.
McGovern's 26-page verdict, which could be appealed to Ireland's Supreme Court, dealt a blow to anti-abortion activists in what was the first reproductive medicine case in the history of Irish legislation.
The judge said the woman, whose identity was kept private, faced "the burden of proving that the word `unborn' meant something more than the fetus or child in the womb, since the clear purpose of the amendment was to deal with the issue of termination of pregnancy."
But McGovern said expert witnesses appearing on behalf of the woman had failed to demonstrate that the Constitution's defense of the unborn should include "embryos outside the womb or in vitro."
McGovern ruled that the embryos should "remain in a state of cryo-preservation for an indefinite period."
The judge cautioned that his ruling merely assessed the current limitations of constitutional law. He said it was open to lawmakers, and the public in a referendum, to extend such rights to embryos.
"It is not for the courts to decide whether the word `unborn' should include embryos in vitro," McGovern said.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, leader of Dublin's 1 million Roman Catholics, said he was alarmed by the verdict because human life began at the moment of conception. He said he hoped that the Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of constitutional law, would extend rights to embryos.
Martin said that the judgment "casts doubt concerning the level of protection which the Constitution affords to human life at its earliest stages. It is to be hoped that this issue will receive full consideration in any eventual appeal to the Supreme Court, and that the general protection of every human life at all stages of its development will be vindicated."
One of Ireland's largest anti-abortion groups, called the Pro Life Campaign, called on the state to introduce a constitutional amendment that defines embryos as the unborn.
"There can be no doubt that the human embryo is alive and unborn.," said Berry Kiely, the medical adviser of the Pro Life Campaign.
"The suggestion that an embryo should only enjoy protection rights when implanted in a woman's womb is arbitrary and ignores the fact that each of us began life as a human embryo," Kiely said.