March 1, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

This is what happens when ‘pro-life Republicans’ play God

The legal and political disaster awaiting them in Alabama.

Courtesy of the Montgomery Advertiser.
Courtesy of the Montgomery Advertiser.

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I would suggest, by passing a measure Thursday to protect in vitro fertilization providers and patients from criminal and civil liability, Alabama legislators are doing more than covering their asses. They are discovering what happens when you play God. 

Alabama’s supreme court ruled recently that frozen embryos are “children” under state law, and that providers and patients can be prosecuted or sued for wrongful death of those “children.” In response, clinics across the state suspended services and procedures, sending not only hopeful parents into a panic, but Republican leaders as well.

The ruling was a logical extension of the conservative Christian belief that life begins at conception. If that’s true, an embryo is a person and abortion is murder. It stands to reason, furthermore, that frozen embryos are children who are equally deserving of the same legal protections that born children have. The disposal of unused embryos, a common practice, is now “a death.” While that may make sense as a matter of theology, it makes very little sense as a matter of politics.

By overwhelmingly passing a measure Thursday to protect in vitro fertilization providers and patients from criminal and civil liability, Alabama legislators are doing more than covering their asses.

In the wake of the ruling, there have been scores and scores of stories on nationwide media outlets about women in Alabama being denied motherhood. “One woman who appeared before a House committee Wednesday testified that she had spent nearly $400,000 on IVF, which would be wasted if programs were not restored soon,” the Post said.

Seeing a crisis of their own making on the horizon, national “pro-life” GOP leaders, including the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, demanded the Alabama legislature respond swiftly. On Thursday, it passed a measure, by veto-proof margins, that protects parents and providers if embryos are damaged or destroyed. 

They are covering their asses, to be sure, but as I said, they’re doing more than that. They are discovering what happens when you deny your humanity, refuse to accept human limitations and play God. 

What most call “conservative politics” I often call anti-political politics. The greater point of conservative laws, values and rhetoric is getting critics and opponents of conservative laws, values and rhetoric to stop acting politically. This is why conservative politics is inherently regressive. It does not make room for solving problems that inevitably rise. Problems wouldn’t be problems if people would just shut up.

The objective of Republican (and sometimes Democratic) practitioners of anti-political politics is neutralizing democratic politics. They do this most successfully by enacting laws and policies seeming to have come not from human beings who are making human choices while existing in a human context, but straight from the mouth of the Almighty. 

Such is “life begins at conception.” To them, it’s not a conservative Christian belief. Alabama legislators did not choose to enshrine it in the state constitution. It’s a commandment. God ordained it. They had no choice! As a consequence, Alabamans must dispense with debate over the complexities of human affairs, especially arguments over life’s origins. This is how democratic politics becomes an affront to God.

The obvious problem with absolutes is they rarely accommodate for complexity – like in vitro being the only way some people can have babies. Absolutes are a desire for simplicity where there is little. At the same time, they can create more complexity where there might be less had the people involved embraced, rather than denied, their humanity. 

In ruling that frozen embryos are children deserving equal protection, the Alabama Supreme Court cited a state constitutional amendment requiring it to “construe ambiguous statutes in a way that ‘protect[s] … the rights of the unborn child’ equally with the rights of born children.”

If killing an already-born child is murder, killing an embryo is, too.

But in avoiding a political disaster, Alabama legislators created conditions for a legal disaster, which could become an even bigger political disaster. The new legislation protects parents and providers from criminal and civil liability in the case of damaged or destroyed embryos. However, they are still legally “children”. In doing so, legislators created a two-tiered system of justice through which I’d be prosecuted for killing a born child but not for killing an unborn child.

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You can see where this goes. If I am protected from criminal and civil liability after killing an unborn child (as someone who disposes of embryos at an in vitro clinic or as a parent who decided to dispose of unused embryos), what’s the continued point of Alabama’s complete ban on abortion? If these “children” are not equally protected, what’s the continued point of possible future “fetal personhood” laws? What’s the continued point even of believing that “life begins at conception”? 

Such are the questions at the heart of what could be ruination for “pro-life Republicans” across the country. Not only did they spend half a century claiming the unborn were the same as the born. They organized around the idea of life beginning at conception. They now believe the “pro-life movement” is the biggest civil rights agenda since the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. Their efforts led to the fall of Roe and it could lead to a national ban on abortion under Donald Trump. 

Yet by carving out exceptions to an absolute in order to accommodate for the complexities of in vitro fertilization, “pro-life Republicans,” so far in Alabama but potentially everywhere, are undermining their own position, because they are undermining a commandment from God. In doing so, they are exposing pretty clearly the greater objective of conservative politics – or what I often call anti-political politics. It isn’t conserving things, not even life. It’s neutralizing democratic politics. 

This could have been avoided had they accepted their humanity.

But they had to play God.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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