Top Arizona court: Divorced woman can't use frozen embryos

A woman can't use her frozen embryos to have a baby over opposition from her ex-husband under terms of the contract they signed with a fertility clinic, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The high court ruling ends a case that drew support from social conservative groups for the woman, Ruby Torres, who had her eggs fertilized prior to treatment for an aggressive cancer in 2014 that rendered her infertile. Torres was 33 years old at the time.

"I was told I was going to have to undergo chemotherapy, and my oncologist gave me one month in July to be able to preserve my fertility," said Torres.

After the couple divorced in 2017, her ex-husband didn't want to have children together and asked the courts to order the fertilized eggs donated under terms of the contract.

"Between out relationship and how it ended, part of it is he's angry," said Torres. "This was the only thing he had left to control me with."

A trial court ruled that the contract left it up to the courts to determine the fate of the embryos and then sided with the ex-husband, John Terrell, saying his interest in not having children he would be financially responsible for outweighed Torres' right to have a biological child.

The state Court of Appeals overturned that ruling last March, agreeing that the contract allowed courts to decide but saying Torres' rights to have children prevailed over Terrell's right not to become a father.

Both courts got it wrong, according to the Supreme Court. The lower courts ruled that a contract clause allowed courts to determine whether to donate or implant the embryos. Terrell's attorney's had pointed to a contract provision that required the consent of the other person for implantation as controlling.

The high court, sitting with only five of seven justices, unanimously agreed with Terrell that the phrase in question “means that upon divorce or dissolution of the relationship, the parties chose to donate the embryos absent a contemporaneous agreement for use by one of them.” They noted the trial court came to the right conclusion, the only one that the contract allowed if both parents could not agree.

“We are cognizant of the unavoidable emotional fall-out attendant to the disposition of the embryos here,” Justice Ann Scott Timmer wrote in the ruling. “But the family court was required to enforce the parties’ chosen disposition of the embryos as set forth in the Agreement.”

"At the end of the day, nobody should be forced to become a father against their will. Against their wishes," said Terrell's attorney, Eric Fraser.

Fraser said his client is happy with the State Supreme Court's decision.

"Before this couple created the embryos, they signed an agreement that said that if they get divorced, that the embryos will be donated to a third party," said Fraser.

The eggs will now be donated, per the terms of the contract.

“We’re disappointed of course, but the Supreme Court says what the law is so we have to abide by it,” said Stanley Murray, Torres' lawyer.

Murray had argued that the contract was ambiguous and the lower courts agreed, stepping in to apply a balancing test.

“Everybody else had different interpretations of the contract, but both the trial court and the Court of Appeals were on the same page as far as the contract doesn’t apply here, it doesn’t cover this situation, so we have to apply the balancing of interests test," Murray said. "But the Supreme Court said, ‘No, the contract does cover this.’"

"To me, they've kind of left me no option, and basically told me I can't have a child, and I never will," said Torres.

The Arizona Legislature changed the law in 2018 in response to Torres' case. The law now allows a former spouse to use the embryos against their former partner's wishes, but relieves the ex-spouse of parental responsibilities like child support. The change is not retroactive, and therefore does not apply to Torres' case.

The change was pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that lobbies for religious freedom and anti-abortion policies.

“I’m heartbroken for Ruby Torres today,” Cathi Herrod, the group's president, said in a statement. “It’s a sad day that she will not be able to bring her children to birth and raise them as she so desired.”

Meanwhile for Torres, she has to undergo a full hysterectomy by the end of the year.

Time, for Torres, is running out.

"[Terrell] can go on and have children. I can't. I'm done," said Torres. "I wish he would've given me the opportunity he still has/ That's all. I'm asking for the opportunity."

Torres is still deciding if she wants to take the legal battle further. If she does, she has two options: either ask the State Supreme Court to reconsider their ruling, or take it to the United States Supreme Court.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.


Title 25 - Marital and Domestic Relations

Article 25-318.03
Human embryos; disposition; responsibility for resulting child; definitions