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The Alabama Chief Justice Who Invoked God in Deciding the Embryo Case

The Alabama Chief Justice Who Invoked God in Deciding the Embryo Case

In an Alabama Supreme Court decision that has rattled reproductive medicine across the country, a majority of the justices said the law was clear that frozen embryos should be considered children: “Unborn children are ‘children.’”

But the court’s chief justice, Tom Parker, drew on more than the Constitution and legal precedent to explain his determination.

“Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God,” he wrote in a concurring opinion that invoked the Book of Genesis and the prophet Jeremiah and quoted at length from the writings of 16th- and 17th-century theologians.

“Even before birth,” he added, “all human beings have the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.”

Just as the case, which centers on wrongful-death claims for frozen embryos that were destroyed in a mishap at a fertility clinic, has reverberated beyond Alabama, so has Justice Parker’s opinion.

His theological digressions showed why he has long been revered by conservative legal groups and anti-abortion activists, and also why he has inspired apprehension among critics who regard him as guided more by religious doctrine than the law.

In a post on social media, Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, described the opinion as a “beautiful defense of life and the Alabama Constitution.” But critics viewed it as dangerous and deviating from the U.S. Constitution. “Welcome to the theocracy,” wrote a columnist for The Washington Post.

Either way, the opinion was true to form for Justice Parker.

Since he was first elected to the nine-member court in 2004, and in his legal career before it, he has shown no reticence about expressing how his Christian beliefs have profoundly shaped his understanding of the law and his approach to it as a lawyer and judge.

Those beliefs also informed a vision that, his supporters say, made him a dogged and brilliant architect for laying the groundwork that contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2022 to overturn a federal right to abortion with Dobbs v. Jackson.

In 2022, Matt Clark, the president of the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal advocacy group, praised Justice Parker for his “courage and relentlessness.” He cited Justice Parker’s writing in past cases as scaffolding for the arguments that successfully challenged Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion and blocks states from banning the procedure before fetal viability, which most experts estimate at about 23 or 24 weeks.

”He picked apart Roe’s logic when it came to viability,” Mr. Clark wrote in an essay published by 1819 News, a conservative digital outlet in Alabama, referring to a concurring opinion in a case related to a wrongful-death lawsuit involving a fetus that was lost before it had reached the point of viability outside the womb.

“Fast-forward nine years later,” Mr. Clark, who later joined Justice Parker’s staff, wrote. “When Mississippi asked the Supreme Court to take Dobbs, one of its major points was how Roe’s viability standard didn’t make any sense. And whose writing did Mississippi draw on multiple times to make that point?”

Justice Parker’s.

His sharpest critics have not denied his influence. “What Justice Parker has done is explicitly lay out the road map for overturning Roe v. Wade,” said Lynn Paltrow, the founder and former executive director of the nonprofit Pregnancy Justice, according to an extensive investigation of Justice Parker’s role in the so-called personhood movement that was published by ProPublica and The New Republic in 2014.

Before joining the court, Justice Parker was the founding executive director of the Alabama Family Alliance, a conservative advocacy group now called the Alabama Policy Institute. He had also served as an assistant state attorney general to Jeff Sessions, who later became a U.S. senator and former President Donald J. Trump’s attorney general.

He was also a close aide and ally of Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the State Supreme Court who was twice removed from the job — first for dismissing a federal court order to remove an enormous granite monument of the Ten Commandments he had installed in the state judicial building, and then for ordering state judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision affirming gay marriage.

Justice Parker, who became chief justice in 2019, is now in his final term on the Supreme Court, having reached the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70.

The 8-to-1 decision last week by the justices, all of whom are Republicans, overturned a lower court’s ruling that frozen embryos were not considered children. The justices found that the couples could pursue a wrongful-death lawsuit against a Mobile fertility clinic over a 2020 episode in which a hospital patient removed frozen embryos from tanks of liquid nitrogen and dropped them on the floor.

Critics argued that the decision stood to have far-reaching consequences. “Justices have crossed a critical boundary to assign personhood to something created in a lab that exists outside of a human body,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama said in a statement.

The majority, in its opinion, cited a 1872 statute that allows parents to sue over the wrongful death of a child and found that “unborn children,” including “extrauterine children,” were included in that.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Parker reached further back, citing Genesis: “The principle itself — that human life is fundamentally distinct from other forms of life and cannot be taken intentionally without justification — has deep roots that reach back to the creation of man ‘in the image of God.’”

It underscored the philosophy that has guided him through two decades on the court.

“When judges don’t rule in the fear of the Lord, everything’s falling apart,” he once wrote, citing the Book of Psalms, according to the ProPublica investigation. “The whole world is coming unglued.”

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