While many lawyers believe the ruling, issued last week by Judge Jeffrey Lawrence, will be overturned, the case has rekindled "right-to-life" arguments about where the line should be drawn in defining when an embryo becomes a living person. Most immediately, however, any legal determination that embryos - or pre-embryos, before they are implanted in a womb - are human beings could devastate the fertility industry.
Clinics would be unwilling to risk being held liable for wrongful death if embryo tissues perished. "If the decision stands, it could essentially end in-vitro fertilisation" in America, said Dr Robert Schenken, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
But James Costello, representing Alison Miller and Todd Parrish, said the couple simply wanted legal redress for their disappointment. "Somebody just threw out the stuff," he said. "They were shocked, of course, when it happened. The issue becomes, `What do you do now?'"
Judge Lawrence said he based his decision on Illinois's Wrongful Death Act. He ruled "that a pre-embryo is a `human being' within the ... Wrongful Death Act, and that a claim lies for its wrongful destruction whether or not it is implanted in its mother's womb."
A legal ethics specialist, John Mayoue, questioned the ruling's implications, asking: "Are we going to elevate those clinics [with frozen embryos] to the status of an orphanage?"