Mona Charen
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IVF and the GOP

The Alabama Supreme Court set off political tremors last week with its decision that frozen embryos have the status of “extrauterine children” and thus are covered by a state law that permits parents to seek damages for the wrongful death of a “minor child.” The implication that in vitro fertilization (IVF) cannot be practiced if embryos have legal standing led some commentators immediately to describe the ruling as a “ban.”

Alabama’s attorney general issued a statement reassuring people that IVF providers and patients would not face prosecution, even as clinics around the state were phoning their patients to cancel procedures. There is, IVF industry representatives told lawmakers and the press, too much risk of legal liability if a clinic accidentally causes the death of an embryo by piercing it with a pipette; or if in consultation with parents, it discards a genetically damaged embryo; or if a power failure causes freezers to malfunction. The possible lawsuits are limitless.

Democrats seized on the decision as evidence that Republican extremists were gunning for IVF, and Republicans, burned once too often by abortion at the ballot box, rushed to assure voters that they reject the ruling and urged the Alabama legislature to amend the law forthwith. Former President Donald Trump led the way by proclaiming that “We want to make it easier for mothers and fathers to have babies, not harder!”

Jason Thielman, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, circulated a letter to candidates urging, “When responding to the Alabama Supreme Court ruling, it is imperative that our candidates align with the public’s overwhelming support for IVF and fertility treatments.” Rep. Byron Donalds, a Freedom Caucus member, said, “I totally support the procedure” and offered that he would support federal legislation to protect IVF. Sen. Tommy Tuberville was confused about the nature of the Supreme Court ruling, telling a group at CPAC “I was all for it. … We need to have more kids,” but he seems to have gotten the memo about the GOP’s message. Speaker Mike Johnson affirmed his support, saying IVF “has been a blessing for many moms and dads who have struggled with fertility.”

The problem with the GOP’s newfound enthusiasm for IVF is that it contradicts other positions the party has taken to please pro-life voters. In the last Congress, more than 160 House Republicans, including Johnson, cosponsored H.R. 1011, the “Life at Conception Act,” which extends 14th Amendment protections to include “preborn human person(s).”

Republicans have also marched in lockstep to oppose the Right to Contraception Act introduced by Democrats because it would have included methods, such as IUDs and the morning-after pill, that some consider abortifacients. It’s hard to square support for IVF which, as practiced in the United States, nearly always entails the loss of fertilized eggs, with opposition to Plan B because it may result in the loss of a fertilized egg.

Maybe the lesson here is that doctrinaire approaches to these matters are not right. Life is full of trade-offs. Johnson is right that IVF has been a blessing for millions, and that includes many people who think of themselves as pro-life. For every 100 Americans born today, between one and two will have been conceived through IVF. By 2015, more than 1 million Americans were born as a result of IVF or similar technologies. 

For people diagnosed with cancer, IVF can preserve their fertility until after they have completed chemotherapy. For couples who are carriers of genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs and more than 400 other disorders, IVF can allow embryos to be tested before transfer to ensure that the disease is not present. Is that a pro-life gift to the world? Millions of Americans think it is — even though the procedure involves the loss of embryonic human life. It isn’t a failing to recognize that these matters are murky and sometimes we do act on moral instinct more than on bright lines.

It is possible to approach the process ethically and even reverently. Some couples make decisions in advance about how to handle the question of “excess” embryos that have not been transferred after IVF treatment (only a fraction of transfers result in implantation and pregnancy). Some place frozen embryos for adoption. Others have larger families than they might have originally intended because they regard the frozen embryos as their children.

It’s difficult for a political party to escape its brand. Just as Democrats will have difficulty convincing voters they aren’t soft on illegal immigration, Republicans won’t easily escape the association with hard-line abortion positions, including opposition to certain kinds of contraception. The personhood bills that four states have enacted and a dozen others are considering draw a harsh line on matters like IVF, which does entail making life-and-death decisions about frozen embryos. The voters may force Republicans to reconsider their blanket support for personhood bills. Perhaps pro-natalism is the pro-life position the GOP needs.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her new book, “Hard Right: The GOP’s Drift Toward Extremism,” is available now.

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David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

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