Illinois to Determine Who Gets Frozen Embryos After Couple Splits

Illinois is currently deciding its most complicated embryo dispute to date: What happens to frozen embryos when an unmarried couple calls it quits?

In 2010, Dr. Karla Dunston received a diagnosis of Lymphoma, which would be treated with chemotherapy. Knowing that chemotherapy would leave her infertile, she asked her then boyfriend, Jacob Szafranski, if he would be willing to donate his sperm to create pre-embryos in order to save her fertility. Although they had been dating only a few months, Szafranski voluntarily agreed.

The couple broke up a few months after the embryos were created and, in attempt to stop them from being used, Szafranski filed a lawsuit to prevent Dunston from using them. Szafranski is asking the court to order that they cannot be used until he consents.

Frozen embryos

To date, Illinois has not dealt with an unmarried couple’s disagreement regarding the use of frozen embryos and the rulings have not come easy. Dunston initially countersued and was granted custody of the embryos, to which Szafranski appealed. The appellate court handed the case back to the lower court with instructions to base the decision on contract principals rather than who has a greater interest in the case. The court again ruled in favor of Dunston and a second appeal has begun. Whoever doesn’t win will likely appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court and could possibly make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The couple signed an informed consent document at the clinic that stated “no use can be made of these embryos without the consent of both partners (if applicable).” While Dunston’s lawyer argues the contract was made orally when Szafranski agreed to assist with helping Dunston have a child, Szafranski’s lawyer claims there was no agreement until the informed consent was signed and therefore it should be enforced.

With the rulings so far, Illinois has set precedence for how to approach legal disputes involving the creation and use of frozen embryos. As a result of this case, Illinois courts will examine both the weight of each party’s interest as well as the contracts involved.

The parties have agreed not to make use of the embryos until the case is resolved. The results of this case, while changing both parties lives forever, will also set groundwork for many couples, including same sex couples who use alternative means of reproduction.