Alabama chief justice leaned on theology for embryo opinion

The exterior of the Alabama Supreme Court building in Montgomery, Ala., is shown Tuesday. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)
The exterior of the Alabama Supreme Court building in Montgomery, Ala., is shown Tuesday. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

The Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen human embryos in test tubes can be considered children under state law sowed confusion this week as institutions, including a University of Alabama health system, paused their in vitro fertilization programs as they reviewed how the legal interpretation would affect them.

In a concurring opinion, state Chief Justice Tom Parker made a constitutional — and very much theological — analysis of the decision, looking to Christian thinkers like John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas and meditating at length on the meaning and grounding of the idea of the "sanctity of unborn life."

He drew the phrase from an amendment made to the Alabama Constitution in 2018, which declared the state's policy to "recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life."

The core phrase "sanctity of unborn life" goes undefined, Parker wrote in his opinion, but given that it was relevant to the case at hand, he took a crack at it himself.

(READ MORE: Alabama Supreme Court rules frozen embryos are 'children' under state law)

Drawing on texts spanning thousands of years, from the book of Genesis to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Parker boiled his view down to a few key claims: God, according to the chief justice's interpretation, made every person in his image, and each person, therefore, has "value that far exceeds the ability of human beings to calculate."

"Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of his image as an affront to himself," Parker continued.

The 2018 Alabama constitutional amendment, he said, recognized this same thing is true of unborn life no less than for other human life.

He and his colleagues were considering two wrongful death cases brought by couples who had frozen embryos destroyed in an accident at a fertility clinic.

The majority of justices, citing the anti-abortion language in the Alabama Constitution, ruled an 1872 state law allowing parents to sue over the death of a minor child "applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location."

(READ MORE: Ending abortion and guarding religious liberty: Southern Baptists set policy agenda for 2024)

"Carving out an exception for the people in this case, small as they were, would be unacceptable to the people of this state, who have required us to treat every human being in accordance with the fear of a holy God who made them in his image," Parker, the chief justice, wrote.

In a lone dissent, State Supreme Court Justice Greg Cook said the question before the justices was what lawmakers meant when they wrote the 19th century law, which he said his colleagues were straining from its original intent to include frozen embryos.

He added his colleagues' ruling would almost certainly end the creation of frozen embryos through in vitro fertilization in Alabama.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

Upcoming Events