Posted by: Renee | July 24, 2008

Who Controls Fertility

A lesbian couple in Canaberra, Sydney went to see Dr. Robert Armellin for IVF.  They specifically requested the implantation of one fertilized egg, and the doctor took it upon himself to implant two eggs.  The end result is that now the two women are raising twin girls.  In an attempt to mediate some of the financial burden, and emotional strain that raising two children instead of one would cause they filed suit against their doctor.  The couple sought $389,000 which included the cost of private education for one of the girls.  Today The ACT Supreme Court ruled in favour of Dr Armellin, and ordered the couple pay his legal costs.

I take issue with the courts decision.  The women in question specifically told the doctor that they only wished to be implanted with one egg and by not honouring their request he committed a grievous act against them.  Not only should he be financially responsible for the cost of raising this child until she reaches the age of maturity, he should be brought before a board of medical review.

Since the medical establishment has taken on fertility and reproduction through the vilification of the midwife, they have acted with callous disregard to womens interests and desires.  If a woman cannot rightly assure that her wishes in regard to reproduction will be honoured, how can we claim any degree of autonomy? Dr Armellin is the de facto “parent” of  one these of these girls, as she would not be alive had he chosen to respect the wishes of his patient.  A Doctor should not be able to unilaterally decide an issue that will bind a woman legally for 18 years, and emotionally for a lifetime.

This case further supports the idea that we as women do not have a right to control our own fertility.  There is a direct relation between this incident and the reduced access to birth control, and abortion.  When women have children their ability to function in the public sphere is greatly reduced and this effects the degree to which they come under “patriarchal control”.  What is at stake is more than fertility rights, what is at stake is personal autonomy and agency.  If we cannot be freed from the responsibility of our wombs we will forever live under the rule of thumb.

Cross Posted from Womanist Musings



  1. This is extremely upsetting.

    It’s complicated though, because, as the link points out, “the birth mother only told him she wanted one embryo minutes before she was sedated, after previously signing a form consenting for up to two embryos to be implanted.”

    So she did sign a consent to have two embryos implanted, and two embryos were implanted.

    So it’s not that he was trying to sabotage these women, it’s that he disregarded what she told him at the last minute. Why did he do that? That’s where the probable sexism lies.

  2. By disregarding her final word on the subject he did indeed maliciously sabotage and seek to assert patriarchal privilege. I look at this like a rape…if a man and a woman are in engaged in sex and she says stop and he continues from that moment on he is raping her. Men need to be held accountable when they do not listen to women in regard to what they can and cannot insert into our bodies.

  3. I do agree with you. It’s sexist, it’s wrong, and it’s disturbing.

    I just want to recognize the issue’s complexity. She signed a contract. That means she also had previous conversations with the doctor. She may have expressed her changed mind at the last minute. She was also on sedatives.

    None of these are excuses. He should have stopped everything and made sure he knew what she wanted before he did anything. He is at fault for that, and the court’s ruling is, in all likelihood, a display of institutional sexism.

    The fact that she signed a contract just makes the issue more complex. It’s still wrong, it’s just more complex.

  4. Like Jack, I recognize that the contract made things sticky. I’m not sure how oral retractions of clauses in a written contract work in that context. I also wonder about the selective elimination that is usually offered for invitro–was it excluded because of the few embryos that were implanted? If it wasn’t an option, then he should have halted the procedure until he was sure what she actually wanted. If she didn’t have or would not exercise the choice to eliminate additional embryos, any past the one she wanted would be a burden if they implanted.

    I wonder if it was a mutual mistake–or if the doctor decided to follow the contract to the letter, knowing he’d be covered no matter if she changed her mind.

  5. I’m wondering if it was a mistake at all. On one hand, I think I’ve heard about that form of fertilization wasn’t the most reliable, and I wonder if the doctor did it to give the procedure better odds. I could be wrong, though. Even if I am right, it’s not an excuse.

  6. From Wikipedia–

    “It is a common practice for IVF programmes to boost the pregnancy rate by placing multiple embryos during embryo transfer. A flip side of this practice is a higher risk of multiple pregnancy, itself associated with obstetric complications.”

  7. This is a difficult situation.

    Her last minute change puts the MD in an impossible situation. He implants one, it doesn’t take and he gets sued for only implanting one. He implants two and they both take and he gets sued for implanting two.

    I don’t know very much about IVF, but I think the conventional practice is to get eggs, make embryos and then freeze them until the right time to implant them. By the time she said only implant one, both of the embryos may have been thawed. They can’t be refrozen, so by implanting only one, the other is destroyed.

    If he implants one and destroys the other, he gets sued for destroying an embryo. Usually IVF is only done when there are difficulties conceiving naturally or via AID. IVF is quite invasive, requiring the harvesting of eggs, usually from hormonal treatments. If these were the only two embryos available, another cycle of egg harvesting would have to be done. This is not always possible.

    If he takes the time to explain all of this, perhaps the “window” passes and both embryos become less likely to implant. The stress of having to make a Sophie’s choice and choose which embryo to implant and which to destroy might compromise their implantation too.

    There may have been other constraints on time also. There may have been other women that were getting IVF that same day, with their frozen embryos being thawed on schedule. To disrupt the schedule might be to compromise the IVF results of everyone else.

    I think this is a very complicated and difficult situation.

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