March 4, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

IVF makes a mockery of anti-choice extremists

Warehouses of frozen embryos put a lie to their central dogma that a fertilized egg is a person, writes Lindsay Beyerstein. 

Courtesy of WBUR.
Courtesy of WBUR.

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In late 2023, a company shipped a bad batch of chemicals to fertility clinics across the country. The product was supposed to nourish fertilized eggs as they grew into embryos, but instead it killed them. An estimated 20,000 in vitro fertilization patients lost one or more fertilized eggs as a result. One couple says they lost 34 embryos. 

If fertilized eggs were people, the likely death toll would exceed that of 9/11, Sandy Hook, and Hurricane Katrina combined. If fertilized eggs were people, this episode would be remembered as the deadliest industrial accident in US history and whoever mixed the faulty batch could be looking at thousands of charges of manslaughter. But since fertilized eggs are obviously not people, America shrugged and went on with its day. 

Republicans were caught flat-footed by the Alabama Supreme Court’s recent ruling that frozen embryos are children. The decision brought the state’s in vitro fertilization industry to a screeching halt. For years, conservative Republicans have claimed that personhood begins at fertilization. As long as Roe was the law of the land, it was a cheap way to pander to anti-choice extremists and juice the perceived moral stakes of the abortion debate. Now that Roe has been overturned, however, IVF is threatened in conservative states. 

An IVF deep freeze is not a kindergarten and everyone knows it. 

The IVF process kills a lot of fertilized eggs, even under ideal conditions. Eggs are harvested and fertilized in bulk because only a few will survive to the implantation stage. Genetically defective embryos may be culled to give the patient the best chance of a healthy pregnancy. There may be frozen embryos left over. A few are donated, but most are simply defrosted. If you really believe that fertilized eggs are people like you and me, then IVF is a hellscape that must be eliminated. 

Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley may say that embryos are babies, but she doesn’t mean it. Her new line is that IVF embryos are property that parents can dispose of as they wish: “Our goal is to always do what the parents want with their embryo. It is theirs,” Haley said. This pivot indicates either an alarmingly cavalier attitude about babies or rank hypocrisy. 

By pandering to anti-choice extremists on personhood, Republicans have set themselves far outside the political mainstream. IVF is wildly popular because IVF helps people have babies and babies poll well. Babies are cute, cuddly and way more telegenic than invisible clumps of frozen cells. Overall, 86 percent of voters support IVF and 85 percent say the government should increase access to the technology. Even the most conservative voters strongly support IVF, according to recent polling – 78 percent of self-proclaimed pro-lifers and 83 percent of evangelicals say they’re in favor. “Be fruitful and multiply” trumps “personhood begins at fertilization.” 

In the wake of the Alabama court’s ruling, Republicans couldn’t decide whether to push the envelope or do damage control. Fetal personhood bills have been introduced in at least 14 state legislatures as of the ruling. Republican lawmakers in Colorado and Iowa introduced bills that would enshrine personhood at fertilization for the purposes of homicide, wrongful death, and assault laws. Neither bill has an exception for IVF. 

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By contrast, House Speaker Mike Johnson bent with the prevailing political winds and praised IVF after the Alabama ruling. We now have proof that Johnson doesn’t believe that personhood begins at fertilization. Yet last year, he and a hundred and twenty-four other Republicans co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act, which defines a fertilized egg as a human being. The 2023 version of the LCA contains no exception for IVF. In fact, an IVF exemption was written out of the current version of the bill. 

On Thursday, Alabama’s Republican dominated legislature passed a law aimed at protecting access to IVF by exempting practitioners from criminal or civil liability if the procedure goes awry. It’s unclear whether this law would withstand the scrutiny of a state Supreme Court that is adamant that personhood begins at fertilization. Further complicating the situation, Alabama amended its constitution in 2018 to assert the sanctity of unborn life. 

Republicans in the US Senate, however, blocked a bill that would have protected access to IVF at the federal level. Apparently, they missed the literal memo from the National Republican Senatorial Committee that said, “[I]t is imperative that our candidates align with the public’s overwhelming support for IVF and fertility treatments.” 

IVF makes a mockery of anti-choice extremists. Warehouses of frozen embryos put a lie to their central dogma that a fertilized egg is a person. An IVF deep freeze is not a kindergarten and everyone knows it. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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