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Alabama’s “frozen embryos are children” prompts action in Congress

The U.S. Capitol while the IVF bill makes its way through Congress. Photo taken by APR News Director Pat Duggins while “on assignment” in Washington, D.C.
Pat Duggins
The U.S. Capitol while the IVF bill
makes its way through Congress. Photo taken by APR News Director Pat Duggins while “on assignment” in Washington, D.C.

Senate Democrats are seeking to highlight Republicans' resistance to legislation that would make it a right nationwide for women to access to invitro fertilization and other fertility treatments, holding a vote on the matter Thursday as part of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's effort to drive an election-year contrast on reproductive care. The action follows February’s Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos are “children.”

In the wake of the Alabama Supreme Court ruling, Christians, who have been a driving force in the anti-abortion movement based on the belief life begins at or around conception, have wrestled with the fertility treatment. The Southern Baptist Convention this week approved a nonbinding resolution that cautioned couples about using IVF.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who has used the fertility treatment to have her two children, has championed the bill, called the Right to IVF Act. The bill would also expand access through insurance as well as for military members and veterans.

"These are real solutions that would help tens of thousands of Americans every year build the families of their dreams," Duckworth, D-Ill., said this week.

Most Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, have expressed support for IVF, but have also largely declined to tell states how to regulate reproductive care. Instead, two Republicans, Senators. Katie Britt of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas have sought to quickly pass a bill that would threaten to withhold Medicaid funding for states where IVF is banned. Democrats blocked that bill on Wednesday.

But most Republicans were expected to vote against advancing the measure, instead offering their own, alternative legislation that would discourage states from enacting outright bans on the treatment. Democrats in turn blocked it Wednesday.

The overtly political back-and-forth, with no attempt at finding a legislative compromise, showed how quickly Congress has shifted into a campaign mindset five months out from the fall election.

As Schumer seeks to protect a narrow Senate majority and buoy Democrats' hopes of holding the White House, he has sought to spotlight Republican intransigence to federal legislation that would guarantee women's rights to reproductive care. Democrats have campaigned heavily on the issue ever since the 2022 Supreme Court decision that ended a federal right to abortion.

Schumer, a New York Democrat, also held a vote last week on legislation to protect access to contraception, but Republicans blocked it, arguing it was nothing more than a political stunt. Republicans have also blocked previous attempts to quickly pass IVF protections. They stressed that they support IVF and said Schumer was once again playing to the campaign trail with Thursday's vote.

"Despite some claims from my colleagues on the other side, protecting IVF is not a show vote at all. It's a show-us-who-you-are vote," Schumer said. "This will be a chance for senators on both sides to show their support for strengthening treatments for people who start families."

Democrats say it is necessary for Congress to protect access to the fertility treatment after the Supreme Court in 2022 allowed states to ban abortions and the Alabama Supreme Court in February ruled that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law. Several clinics in the state suspended IVF treatments until the state enacted a law to provide legal protections for IVF clinics.

Senate Democrats said it showed how all types of reproductive care could be upended in many parts of the country after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Democrats argued that the GOP bill was insufficient because it would still allow states to enact laws that grant embryos or fetuses the same rights as a person. Abortion opponents in over a dozen states have advanced legislation based on the concept of fetal rights.

Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who objected to quickly passing the GOP bill, dismissed it as "nothing but a PR stunt."

But Republicans also criticized the Democratic bill. Britt said it "extends far past IVF. It also treads on religious freedom and protection."

With the Senate deadlocked on the issue, advocates for access to the treatment said families would be left in uncertainty.

Jamie Heard, who lives in Birmingham and had to suspend her effort to have a second child using IVF when the state Supreme Court made its decision, said the ruling left her both scared and angry. She has been able to continue the treatment, yet spoke alongside other IVF advocates at the Capitol Wednesday to urge lawmakers to act.

"There are still a lot of questions that we have about how to move forward," Heard said.


Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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