CLAYTON, Mo. (CN) - A Missouri couple has traded lawsuits with a California couple in a case that tests the bounds of child custody law. The couples are fighting over control of two frozen embryos stored in a California fertility clinic. The case raises ethical questions over the definition of family relationships and the word used to describe the transfer of embryos: adoption or donation.
Edward and Kerry Lambert, of Pleasanton, Calif., filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court to secure custody of embryos they had given Missouri couple Jen and Patrick McLaughlin.
The embryos in dispute were created by the Lamberts, with Edward's sperm and an anonymous donor's egg. After the birth of their son, the Lamberts were left with four frozen embryos that they decided to give to the McLaughlins. The Lamberts say the other couple breached their contract by not returning the unused embryos after the McLaughlins gave birth to twins with the first two.
The Lamberts claim they do not want the remaining embryos implanted in Jen McLaughlin because of her violation of the contract and her "recent behavior in connection with the two embryos."
The McLaughlins fought back with a lawsuit in St. Louis County Circuit Court, claiming Jen's interests in "her unborn children" and the embryos' interest in their siblings "is of such uniqueness" to give the McLaughlins legal right to the embryos.
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The embryo adoption agreement contains a stipulation that any unused embryos could revert back to the Lamberts after one year, should the couple so choose.
But the McLaughlins' attorney, Albert Watkins, challenges the validity of the provision. He said the contract is a glorified form contract, written up years earlier by an attorney at the urging of the Catholic Archdiocese.
At the time, Catholicism was trying to help its followers explore the new technology of in vitro fertilization, Watkins said. But the technology was not foolproof. Watkins said dozens of eggs were frozen and up to 12 to 14 eggs were implanted in a woman at once, often causing traumatic multiple miscarriages.
"There would be women who would go through 12 to 14 miscarriages in the span of a day or two and after that horrible experience, they would say 'I'm not going through this again,'" Watkins said. "Then you would have all these frozen embryos in limbo. So the Catholic Church included this inversion paragraph in the contract."
But technology improved, resulting in Jen McLaughlin getting pregnant and giving birth to twins on the first attempt.
Jen said she promised the Lamberts to "do whatever it took to give those embryos the best chance to be born. I've done that to the best of my abilities."
She said she would like to do the same for the remaining embryos, but needs time to recover from giving birth and to allow her growing family to adjust to the new arrivals.
The twins made seven kids for the McLaughlins; the first five were adopted. The couple cited family togetherness as a major reason they want to keep the remaining embryos.
"This is not about me," Jen said. "If I wanted a frozen embryo, there are three clinics available immediately. The issue is my family. It's about my children and protecting them."
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