Consent or contract: what governs the disposal of genetic material?
In overturning a lower court decision, on May 31, 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeal held that neither contract law nor property law principles govern how to dispose of embryos, where neither party has a biological connection to the genetic material.
Instead, in S.H. v D.H, 2019 ONCA 454 the Court held that the governing legislation and regulations prevail: The Assisted Human Reproduction Act (“AHRA”) and the Assisted Human Reproductions (Section 8 Consent) Regulations (“Consent Regulations”).
In 2011, D.H. and S.H. purchased four embryos (created from anonymous donors) from a lab in the US. Two of the four embryos were viable, one of which resulted in the birth of the couple’s son. The second embryo is stored in an Ontario lab. The couple divorced shortly after the birth of their son, and a dispute arose around the fate of the second embryo.
At the time of purchasing the embryos, the couple entered into two contracts, one with the US based lab, and one with the Ontario based lab. The first contract set out that the frozen embryos would be donated, in the event that the parties are unable to make a decision as to their disposition in the future. The couple also acknowledged that in the event of a divorce, the legal ownership of any remaining stored embryos would be determined in a property settlement.
The Ontario based contract identified D.H. as the “patient” and the S.H. as the “partner”. It set out that in the event of divorce or legal separation, the lab would “respect the patient’s wishes”. When D.H. attempted to proceed with implanting the second embryo, S.H. withdrew his consent.
In the lower court decision, the court looked to the persuasive authority, M. (J.C.) v A. (A.N), 2012 BCSC 584, concluding that the embryos were to be treated as property, governed by the contracts, such that the “patients’ wishes” should be respected.
The Ontario Court of Appeal however, has concluded that Parliament has imposed a consent-based, rather than a contracts-based model through AHRA and the Consent Regulations. Under this legislative format, “donor” is defined to include a couple who are spouses at the time the in vitro embryo is created, even where neither person contributes reproductive material to the embryo. The Court also determined that separation or divorce does not change the donor status of the couple in instances where either both individuals are genetically connected to the embryo, or neither individual is genetically connected to it. Pursuant to s. 10(3) of the Consent Regulations, the donor status is only changed if there is only one genetically contributing former spouse – and it is that individual who will be deemed the sole donor.
The Court went on to consider that the principle of free and informed consent was a fundamental condition to the use of human reproductive technologies. The Consent Regulations reflects that consent is ongoing and is not frozen in time by specifically legislating that the consent of the donor may be withdrawn by either spouse. The Consent Regulations and AHRA criminalizes the use of genetic material without the written consent of the embryo’s donors.
In coming to its conclusion, the Court held that a consent-based model to reproductive technology is “fundamentally at odds with contract law”, and that an individual cannot simply contract out of criminal law, nor the protections that may be afforded to them under that law. Therefore, it was within S.H.’s right to withdraw his consent to the use of the embryo.
In the estate planning context, assisted human reproduction brings with it many considerations which should be taken by the drafting solicitor, such as whether or not the client, or their partner has any stored sperm or ova, whether there is consent to the use of the genetic material post-mortem, if there are any time limitations on its use, and whether or not there is an intention that children conceived with donated sperm/ova posthumously are to be included in the Will, among many others.
To learn more about the impact of assisted human reproduction within the estate planning context, and some practical tips for solicitors, see “Fertility Law Considerations for Estate Lawyers” by Suzana Popovic-Montag.
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