March 10, 2023
Court Declares Cryopreserved Human Embryos May be Partitioned, Auctioned, and Sold
When co-owners of cannot agree as what to do with property, the ordinary remedy is to bring a lawsuit for partition. In partition, the preference is for the property to be subdivided among the co-owners. If the property cannot be equitably divided among the co-owners (such as there being a single family dwelling that takes up the land), then the entire property may be sold at auction and the proceeds divided. This is a process that most people try to avoid because it can be time-intensive for the attorneys billing by the hour.
By statute, real estate is the only property that can be partitioned. Personal property (“chattels”) can also be partitioned. On February 8, 2023, Judge Richard E. Gardiner of Fairfax County Circuit Court issued an opinion that addressed the partition of something unusual: cryopreserved human embryos. This opinion discusses a number of my own interests: property litigation, bioethics, and Virginia history. Property law can “touch and concern” just about any aspect of human relations.
The use of IVF raises numerous ethical questions, such as what to do with “leftover” stored embryos after the couple conceives the number of children they both desire to have together. People are not property, at least not anymore. The law treats stored embryos as property. At some point, the parents must start thinking of their offspring as a person. The way parents relate to their child begins before the time that the law starts treating the offspring as a person. Otherwise, the notion of trying to have (or avoid having) children doesn’t make sense. These issues will continue to present thorny questions as these technologies evolve and human moral standards change. The law plays catch-up.
Honeyhline and Jason Heidemann divorced in 2018. During the marriage, the Heidemanns used in vitro fertilization due to difficulty conceiving. This resulted in three embryos. According to the paperwork, the parties agree to joint ownership of any embryos produced. The Heidemanns used one embryo to conceive one child (a daughter) during the marriage. In the divorce, the Heidemanns signed a property settlement agreement that addressed the embryos, basically deferring their disposition to be resolved by agreement or court order at a later date. The parties agreed to continue to jointly own the embryos and pay for their storage in the meantime. After the divorce, Ms. Heidemann wanted to use the remaining embryos to conceive more children because chemotherapy rendered her infertile. Mr. Heidemann did not agree, viewing this to interfere with his asserted right of “procreational autonomy.” In November 2021, Ms. Heidemann filed a Complaint for Partition of Personal Property. The lawsuit asked the Court to award her both or one of the stored embryos.
Mr. Heidemann opposed the lawsuit with numerous arguments. First, he asserted that the embryos could not be sold because they constitute “human fetal tissue” for purposes of federal statutes. Second, the embryos were not “goods or chattels” that having monetary value and therefore could not be partitioned by statute. Third, under the PSA there could be no use of the embryos without his consent. Fourth, allowing use of the embryos without his consent would violate his 14th Amendment rights. The Court found that none of these arguments warranted short circuit of the lawsuit in Mr. Heidemann’s favor.
Judge Gardiner disagreed that the PSA precluded the action. The PSA contemplated that the embryos be disposed of by agreement or a court order. The plain meaning of the PSA did not give Mr. Heidemann veto power that could prevent a judge from determining the parties property rights in partition.
The Court did not reject Mr. Heidemann’s argument outright that he had a right of personal “reproductive autonomy” under the 14th Amendment that would prevent partition of the embryos. Instead, the Court found that such arguments would have to be considered at a later stage in litigation. I would infer that Mr. Heidemann did not argue that the 14th Amendment requires treating the embryos as something other than property.
Mr. Heidemann argued that the embryos cannot be partitioned pursuant to Va. Code § 8.01-93 because they are not “goods or chattels,” observing that they are “distinct, unique and not fungible” and thus of a character different from parcels of land. Judge Gardiner observed that Mr. Heidemann had already agreed to treat the embryos as properties by signing the PSA.
The Court observed that the “goods or chattels” referenced in the statute is not limited to personal property laying upon or attached to real estate that is also being partitioned. The opinion letter discusses the history of the partition statute. Originally, only real estate could be partitioned. The statute expanded this to include personal property, and for many years it also included people enslaved within the definition of partitionable property. By 1849, enslaved persons were partitionable in kind (divided by individual among the co-owners) or subject to sale (for example, a single person sold and the proceeds divided among the former owners). Before 1819, the law was unsettled as to whether enslaved persons were considered to be property rights appurtenant to the real estate upon which they lived and worked for purposes of partition.
I will pause my summary of the opinion to add a few thoughts of my own: Its interesting that the opinion discusses the question as to whether enslaved persons are the “direct” property of their owners or “indirectly” as tied to the owned land. Serfdom was understood to be something related to landlord-tenant law, whereby the serfs were in a binding “contractual” relation to the land upon which they lived and did agricultural labor. Personal servitude was abolished in the context of the Civil War. Good riddance! Serfdom is compared to “sharecropping,” which also includes conflates notions of employment with ties to the land. All of this is alien to our modern understanding of a contract as a bargained-for meeting of the minds. Yet, the notion of “servitudes” continues in other forms, such as real (predial) servitudes, whereby one parcel of land is yoked to another parcel by a covenant or easement. Being a sharecropper, tenant or owner of servitude-burdened property is not the same as serfdom. Yet, the concepts are not alien to each other. Once land is burdened by obligations to another person’s interest in the same or appurtenant property, the person with an interest in land so burdened cannot retain the real estate interest and walk away from the burden without the other’s permission or adjudication of a legal right. This language of servitudes lives on in easement terminology. There is a “dominant” parcel that enjoys a privilege with respect to a “servient” parcel. After slavery was abolished, in the same time frame in which “Jim Crow” laws developed (including heavy use of “sharecropping” with many blacks, but also whites), use of real servitudes, particularly restrictive covenants, developed to manage subdivisions newly created to house in the suburbs a new middle class created by the industrial revolution. Some of these “servitudes” were expressly discriminatory against African-Americans, others were irksome to everyone. Real servitudes (together with landlord-tenant law and zoning laws) developed to control people through restrictions placed on land use. Real estate, development/construction, and land use law are used to indirectly control the movement and activity of people. The relationship between real and personal property in the context of partition is important, because partition does not “clean” or redefine property (beyond the dilemma of deadlocked common ownership), it merely divides, sells or disposes of a set of rights and duties that already exist. Also consider that in the event that the terms of condominium statutes or recorded instruments do not provide a streamlined framework for disposing of the property in termination, the property in the development goes into a cumbersome, time consuming process of partition.
Getting back to the Judge Gardiner opinion. In 1819, a statute declared that “all Negro and mulatto slaves . . . shall be held, taken, and adjudged to be personal estate.” From his study of the legislative history of the partition statute, with focus on its use with slavery, Judge Gardiner concludes that the present day partition statute, Va. Code § 8.01-93 must be interpreted to include personal property not attached to land, and its use with respect to the same in not limited to situations where the goods or chattels are found on or attached to the land being partitioned. Judge Gardiner did not find that the legal status of human embryos is analogous to slavery, but his opinion stimulates such thoughts.
Judge Gardiner rejected Mr. Heidemann’s argument that frozen embryos cannot be partitioned because they cannot be sold pursuant to federal law. There is a federal statute that says that “human fetal tissue” cannot be sold for consideration such as money. The problem with this argument is that the statute defines “human fetal tissue” as tissue or cells from a dead human embryo or fetus. The embryos fought over in this lawsuit were cryopreserved. Remarkably, dead embryos or fetal tissue have greater legal protection than the living, at least in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Rejecting all of these arguments, the court overruled Mr. Heidemann’s demurrers and permitted his ex-wife’s partition suit to proceed to the next stage. Personally, I find the application of the general laws for partition in the context of human embryos to be problematic, and warranting a legislative fix, because an auction to the highest bidder of embryos seems, in my view, susceptible to corrupting of morals. But, in the absence of any other legal process, this is the only way to handle it. When the parties are deadlocked in their negotiations, the law channels them into an existing system of procedures and remedies.
March 10, 2023 Addendum:
An interesting article about this case was published yesterday, March 9, 2023. The article focuses on an aspect of the opinion that some people found troubling, that Judge Gardiner made use of the legislative history regarding partition of enslaved persons in his attempt to try to interpret the current statute. That article is by Matthew Barakat and is entitled, Judge Uses Slavery Law to Rule Frozen Embryos are Property.” This is worthwhile reading. Barakat quotes Georgetown Professor Susan Crockin saying that, “she’s not aware of any other judge in the U.S. who has concluded that human embryos can be bought and sold. She said the trend, if anything, has been to recognize that embryos have to be treated in a more nuanced way than as mere property.” However, the article does not explain what other courts have held and on what basis. The history of Virginia legislation is replete with slavery references and other horrible policies. I would agree with Professor Crockin that embryos ought not to be treated as property, which leads to the appalling result that they can be auctioned off to the highest bidder. However, it is my impression that, based purely on reading the letter opinion, that Judge Gardiner believes that the governing law of Virginia is woefully inadequate. Laws are words written in code books, case precedents, and the like. The General Assembly really needs to take action. It is the judge’s job to apply the law, and not to engage in exercises of creative writing in order to achieve results that comport with abstract notions. People feel troubled because they should.
March 14, 2023 Addendum:
Note that there currently is partition reform legislation that the General Assembly passed in its 2023 that awaits the governor’s signature. House Bill 1755 does not address the issue of frozen embyros specifically, but it does add language that would likely be litigated in such cases. The bill, among other changes, adds a new subsection B to Va. Code § 8.01-81:
“If the court orders partition in kind, it shall consider: 1. Evidence of the collective duration of ownership or possession of any portion of the property by a party and one or more predecessors in title or predecessors in possession of the property who are or were related to the party; 2. A party’s sentimental attachment to any portion of the property, including any attachment arising because such portion of the property has ancestral or other unique or special value to the party; 3. The lawful use being made of any portion of the property by a party and the degree to which the party would be harmed if the party could not continue the same use of such portion of the property; 4. The degree to which a party has contributed to the physical improvement, maintenance, or upkeep of any portion of the property; and 5. Any other relevant factor.”
Of course, these reforms are woefully inadequate to address the controversies illustrated in the February 2023 Fairfax demurrer ruling. These legislative amendments have “normal” property in mind.
Heidemann v. Heidemann, CL-2021-15372, 2023 Va. Cir. Lexis 13 (Fairfax Feb. 8, 2023).
Note that the photograph used for this blog post is a stock image downloaded from Shutterstock and does not show anything specifically referenced in the article.