Republicans Struggle to Explain Away Their Hypocrisy on IVF

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

When the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos could be considered children, it put an unpopular target on the most effective fertility treatment in the country.

It also put a target on the backs of Republicans, with many GOP politicians suddenly facing questions about their long-held beliefs about when life begins.

Squaring support for in vitro fertilization with the general GOP position—that life begins at conception—is hard enough. But many Republicans, from Donald Trump to Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), rushed to do just that in the aftermath of the Alabama ruling.

And yet, for some GOP lawmakers, there’s a reason why supporting IVF may come off as disingenuous: they’re cosponsors of a bill, “The Life at Conception Act,” that would vow to protect “all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization.”

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If you ask these Republicans how they square their newfound public support for IVF with their support for a measure that would undermine IVF, you’ll get some tortured—though, at times, candid—answers.

“With difficulty,” is how Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) responded last week.

“I can’t honestly tell you I’ve invested myself properly to give you a solid answer, but generally, you know, I will always defend life from conception to natural death,” Higgins told The Daily Beast.

While Higgins admitted he hadn’t thought much about the potential hypocrisy, he tried—in that instant—to grapple with the question. He compared IVF to the fetal stem cell debates of the early 2000s. And for those who believe life begins at conception, Higgins said, the issue has provoked a “soul-searching moment.”

“You have to determine where’s the line you draw with medical science,” he said.

But if these GOP lawmakers are relying on medical science to guide their opinions, it’s clear many haven’t done much research.

“I’m in favor of in vitro fertilization,” Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-OR) told The Daily Beast. “I think there's a bunch of work that you can do to make sure it’s been managed appropriately, but I’m in favor of it.”

While Bentz said he supports IVF, he’s also a cosponsor of the “Life at Conception Act.” And when pressed on what he meant by working to ensure IVF is “managed appropriately,” he deflected.

“That’s a complex area and one that, I think, the proper people to be talking to would be folks who are in that space,” he said. “Because for me to be—as a lawyer—to be talking about IVF is asking a bit much.”

But therein lies one of the ironies of lawmakers making health decisions. These Republicans aren’t deferring to doctors to make law; they’re making sweeping statements about when life begins—and then trying to draft laws that conform to those beliefs.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., is seen outside a meeting of the House Republican Conference.

Bentz said Republicans now supporting IVF were focusing on the goal of people having more children, “because that’s something everyone should be in favor of.”

“And then exactly how we go about it, I think that needs to be done with due regard to embryos that are created, but this is a space that requires a lot more knowledge about the process,” Bentz said.

Asked how he squares his simultaneous support for the Life at Conception Act and IVF, Bentz said that requires “a pretty good understanding of IVF.”

“That’s why I’m telling you that the proper people to be talking to are those that are familiar with it,” he said. “Experts in that space.”

Pressed again about his support for a bill that could undermine IVF, Bentz challenged the idea that legislation defining life as beginning “at the moment of fertilization” was a test to IVF.

“So why would that in any way be anti-IVF?” Bentz asked. When The Daily Beast tried to respond, Bentz interjected. “Are you a doctor?” he asked.

For fertility expert Dr. Eve Feinberg—an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine—legislation that assigns personhood to embryos is “very problematic for IVF.”

“So if you are saying that a fertilized egg has all of the rights of the citizen,” Feinberg told The Daily Beast, “then any time an embryo—be it a fresh embryo, or a frozen embryo, or an embryo that was generated through natural conception—anytime that embryo stops growing and developing, all of a sudden this opens the door for litigation, to assign fault and criminality and money damages at the person who is believed to be at fault.”

But time and again, Republicans didn’t see any issue with their bill and their sudden support for IVF.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR)—another Life at Conception Act cosponsor—saw no contradiction, calling IVF “a good tool.”

“It allows a lot of people with infertility problems to have children,” he said. “It’s amazing technology.”

And when pressed on the specifics, he said he believes embryos are “a part of life” that should be respected but regulated.

“There’s a lot of ethical issues and it has to be regulated with IVF,” he said. “But, again, it’s been a remarkable tool that allows people to have children that couldn’t have children otherwise.”

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Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT)—another cosponsor—answered the question of how he can support IVF and the Life at Conception Act with another question.

“That’s really where we have to sit down, I think, as a body. How can we make sure we’re protecting the opportunity for parents to do that, and at the same time protect the children?” Owens said.

By children, Owens clarified, he meant unimplanted fertilized eggs.

There are 124 House Republicans who have signed on to the Life at Conception Act—including Speaker Johnson.

The bill has become the subject of intense scrutiny after the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos created by IVF are legally “children.” While Republicans contend the Alabama ruling didn’t outlaw IVF, concerns about clinics being held liable for damage done to the embryos under the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act have had a chilling effect; several Alabama IVF providers have already discontinued the treatment.

The logic of the Alabama Supreme Court decision underpins the Life at Conception Act. Embryos, supporters argue, are humans and should be treated as such under the law. If the Life at Conception Act passed, experts say it could have massive ramifications for IVF access nationwide.

Republicans are already in a tough position politically on abortion, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. The decision to make abortion a state issue has invigorated voters to turnout for Democrats and contributed to key Republican losses, even in red states like Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio.

The GOP—which has long branded itself as the party of life—knows it can’t oppose the most effective fertility treatment in the country without facing even steeper political repercussions. Which is why the chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), released a memo in the wake of the Alabama decision calling on Republican Senate candidates to post statements unequivocally supporting IVF.

Even Johnson, one of the most pro-life members of Congress, obliged.

“I believe the life of every single child has inestimable dignity and value,” Johnson said in a statement. “That is why I support IVF treatment, which has been a blessing for many moms and dads who have struggled with fertility.”

Unaddressed in his statement was how he squared the contradiction of his support for IVF with his support for a bill that would treat embryos like human lives.

But some Republicans did seem to see the contradiction—even if they didn’t want to address it.

Bill cosponsor Rep. Andy Ogles (R-TN) said he believes “life begins at conception,” but he declined to comment further than that. Another cosponsor, Rep. Mike Flood (R-NE), said he supports IVF but directed The Daily Beast to reach out to his communications staff with follow-ups.

When asked for his thoughts on IVF, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) said he was “not going to opine or get involved in that.”

Asked about his support for the Life at Conception Act, Buck asked The Daily Beast when he signed on to the bill. The Daily Beast told him 2023.

“I'll have to look at that timing,” he said. “But I am absolutely—and have always been—a pro-life member and will continue to be.”

In an apparent acknowledgement of the political optics around the party’s confused IVF messaging, some vulnerable Republicans have tried to clear up where they stand on the treatment. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) introduced a resolution expressing “strong support” for IVF. As did Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-OR).

Neither of those measures, however, are binding. If passed, the resolutions wouldn’t lend any protection to IVF.

“They could actually do something, and instead they’ve put out non-binding resolutions and said, ‘We support it,’” House Democrat campaign Chair Suzan DelBene (D-WA) told The Daily Beast. “But if you really want to do something, do something of substance.”

DelBene told The Daily Beast that Democrats will “hold Republicans accountable” for their support of the Life at Conception Act on the 2024 campaign trail.

Democrats have also proposed their own IVF safeguards. Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA) introduced a bill to protect IVF in January. But despite the supposed GOP support for IVF, of the bill’s 102 sponsors, not one is a Republican at the moment.

Some Republicans argue the issue is better left up to the states and that there isn’t a role for the federal government in IVF.

“We already have IVF legal in every state, and Alabama is gonna make it clear it’s legal there,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) told The Daily Beast. “So I’m not sure there’s a need for federal law, already legal everywhere.”

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) said on the Senate floor that she supports “the ability of mothers and fathers to have total access to IVF in bringing new life into the world. I also believe human life should be protected.”

“These are not mutually exclusive,” she said. But then, on Wednesday, Hyde-Smith objected to IVF protections proposed by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (R-IL) on the Senate floor.

GOP Senator Derails Bill to Protect Access to IVF

Hyde-Smith said Duckworth’s bill overstepped—she argued it would legalize “human-animal chimeras,” among other things—and suggested it was unnecessary since no state has actually banned IVF anyway.

Predictably, Democrats are jumping at the chance to call Republicans hypocrites on IVF. Before The Daily Beast could even finish asking a question about the GOP contradiction, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) launched into a condemnation of her Republican colleagues.

“They’re so supportive that they will do nothing to protect it,” Warren said. “The Republicans have been captured by an extremist wing of their party, and they can’t figure out how to shake loose. So they do what the extremist want, but try to talk a more moderate game.”

“Nobody is fooled,” she added.

Still, not everyone in the GOP is going for moderation. Some Republican lawmakers were quite forthcoming about their concerns with—even outright opposition to—IVF.

Asked about his stance on IVF, Life at Conception Act cosponsor Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL) said he sees “challenges” with leftover embryos.

Due to those concerns, Rutherford said he is “not really” supportive of IVF, specifying he would be more open to IVF if there was a guarantee that no embryos would be left over.

Asked if he considers discarded embryos murder, he said he didn’t know if he’d call it “murder,”

“But it certainly denies the sanctity of life,” he said.

Conservative Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) was similarly skeptical of IVF. When asked about the Alabama Supreme Court ruling, unlike many of his GOP peers, Burchett made no effort to distance himself.

“If you’re pro-life, and you believe life begins at conception—that means if it begins in a Petri dish, or in the womb, or in the back of a 1955 Chevy—it’s still life,” he said. “And so if we’re going to be pro-life, then we better be able to defend it.”

On the other side of the issue, some Republicans were more firmly cemented in their support for IVF. Rep. Max Miller (R-OH) told The Daily Beast he was not about to sign on to federal protections, but he also expressed concerns with Republican-led bills policies that could imperil IVF—like the Life at Conception Act.

“There’s a reason why I didn’t sign onto that piece of legislation,” Miller said. “It’s not because I don’t believe that life begins at conception.”

“It’s murky,” Miller said. “We have to be pragmatic to the will of the American people.”

Miller acknowledged that IVF is a “very tough issue to navigate” and “emotionally charged,” but he said he supports couples that want to build a family. That said, he believes IVF is something that should fall to the states.

Miller said he and his wife did not use IVF, but that “it could have been close.”

“And I would have wanted to because I would like to have a child,” he said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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