Conception takes center stage in Social Security survivor benefits case.
In Astrue v. Capato, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that twins conceived through in vitro fertilization after their father’s death are not eligible for Social Security survivor benefits.
Karen and Robert Capato were married in 1999. Shortly thereafter, Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Prior to undergoing chemotherapy, Robert deposited semen in a sperm bank to offset the risk of sterility. During Robert’s treatment, Karen conceived naturally and delivered a son in 2001. Unfortunately, Robert’s health deteriorated, and he died less than a year later.
To fulfill their desire to give their son siblings, Karen soon began in vitro fertilization treatments. She conceived and delivered twins 18 months following Robert’s passing. Karen subsequently applied for Social Security survivors benefits for the twins and was denied.
In the Court opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote, “The technology that made the twins’ conception and birth possible, it is safe to say, was not contemplated by Congress when the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act (Act) originated (1939) or were amended to read as they now do (1965).”
Throughout, the opinion discusses precisely who is determined to be a “child” under the relevant federal law, which does make provisions for natural children, adopted children, step-children, grandchildren, etc. However, neither federal law nor the Court holds any inherent bias against children conceived by in vitro fertilization.
Rather, the decision apparently hinged on the fact that the children were conceived following their father’s death. Accordingly, they were never supported by him during his lifetime and are not entitled to survivor benefits, unless specifically provided for in his will or by relevant state intestacy laws.
Why does this all matter? The U.S. Supreme Court took up the question of what a child is legally entitled to from the point of conception, not from implantation, medical viability outside the mother’s womb, or birth. If a child has certain legal rights based upon conception, could it be argued that a child has legal rights from the time of conception?
In an interesting twist of irony, this question has been brought about by the widespread use of in vitro fertilization. To be sure, the question of parentage can be rather complicated today, especially in modern reproductive technology where conception is considered apart from the identities of the participants as simply as a means to an end. Donor sperm, donor eggs, and surrogacy have muddied that water far more than blended families ever could.
However, the Court’s opinion in Astrue v. Capato asserts clearly that conception has definite legal implications. For example, the Court cites that the case of a child conceived prior to the death of the father who dies while the child is in utero is provided for in federal law. Conception matters! Indeed, the words conception and conceived appear a combined 30 times in the opinion.
Is this the beginning of the highest court in the land taking up more such issues? Could further discussion of legal rights of children dependent upon conception eventually result in the realization of legal fetal personhood, or is this just an isolated blip on the radar screen? What about the Court’s decision; did the Supremes get it right or wrong? Did the Court respect or disrespect fetal dignity by denying survivor benefits to the Capato twins?
Finally, how do you think the Supreme Court would have ruled if the embryos had been created before Robert Capato passed away? Would the discussion be focused on conception or instead shifted to implantaton? I would love to hear your opinion.