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Senate Republicans support IVF – but most won't back national protections after Alabama ruling

WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers came out in droves over the weekend to say they support in vitro fertilization in the wake of an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos should be considered children.

But Senate Democrats plan to test that support, putting up legislation on Wednesday to outlaw limitations on "assisted reproductive technology" such as IVF. Many GOP senators won't say whether they'd support nationwide protections for the fertility service – or say it's up to the states to pass protections – even though they believe it should be available to families.

"At this stage of the game I'm not prepared to get into that with legislation until we actually see how a number of the states come up with different solutions," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. "That really is the laboratory that has worked in the past."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the issue is contained to Alabama for now. "This is a state law matter."

"When you get rulings like we had down in Alabama, you need to clearly get to the point that it didn't make sense," said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. But on laws to protect IVF, "it's probably best attended to on the state level."

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Alabama have filed bills to protect IVF since the state Supreme Court's decision came down last week, rocking Americans across the country hoping to have children via the procedure.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) arrives to a luncheon with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol on February 07, 2024 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) arrives to a luncheon with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol on February 07, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Is an embryo a child? Alabama ruling sparks new debates

The Alabama court ruling has also sparked new debates over reproductive rights for many conservative senators – who have long advocated for abortion restrictions.

The state court's ruling was issued as a part of wrongful death cases brought by couples whose frozen embryos were accidentally destroyed at a fertility clinic. Citing anti-abortion language added to the Alabama constitution in 2018, the state's judges determined that wrongful death claims could be applied to "unborn children," including embryos.

The decision had immediate repercussions. Alabama's biggest hospital, the University of Alabama at Birmingham health system, paused some infertility treatments the next day over concerns of potential legal vulnerability.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he supports IVF, but he also believes frozen embryos used in the procedure are human lives.

"That's the challenge. That's at the crux of the ethics of it," Rubio said. "In the balance of things, how do our laws recognize the dignity of that human life and also understand what it enables is a life-creating procedure?"

But should Congress act to clarify that? "I don't know the answer to that – I don't know if that's a federal regulation or whether that's on a state-by-state basis," he said.

Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) during a press conference talking about the Equal Representation Act.
Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) during a press conference talking about the Equal Representation Act.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said because Alabama's government "has given legs to concerns about the use of IVF, at least in Alabama, I want to see what they do first" before Congress acts.

Asked how anti-abortion advocates square the belief that life begins at conception with support for IVF – a procedure that often requires multiple embryos to be conceived and for some to eventually be destroyed – she said she doesn't know when life begins.

"I think there's a difference: I think it could be justified to say that the rights of a child do not apply to an in vitro situation, that they would only apply" to embryos inside a human body, she said. "But it's going to take some people who are really applying a lot of time and thought to this to figure it out."

However, some Republicans clearly said this week they would support federal protections.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he doesn't know whether there’s support among his Republican peers to back a federal plan to protect IVF, "but there certainly is on my part. I'd have several fewer grandkids if we didn't have IVF."

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said it's possible to be "100% against abortion" except in cases of rape, incest and life-threatening medical emergencies and "100% for IVF," as he is. "I think IVF ought to be protected in law as it is in my state."

And Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, agreed that he would support federal protections: He also accused his Democratic colleagues of trying to "change the narrative" surrounding Republicans and IVF in the wake of the Alabama decision.

Nearly half of adults in the United States say they or someone they know has used fertility treatments such as IVF, according to Pew Research Center data from last fall. A National Republican Senatorial Committee memo sent to GOP senate candidates Friday said around 78% of anti-abortion advocates, 83% of evangelical Christians and 86% of women support IVF.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on protections for access to in-vitro-fertilization on February 27, 2024 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on protections for access to in-vitro-fertilization on February 27, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Democrats lash out at Republicans after IVF ruling

As Republican officials show their support for IVF, Democrats have pointed blame at their GOP colleagues, trying to tie the Alabama decision to broader anti-abortion pushes.

"This didn't happen in a vacuum," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said during a press conference Tuesday. "What happened in Alabama, make no mistake about it, is a direct consequence of the hard-right MAGA Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade."

Senate Democrats plan to force Republicans to choose whether to block a bill on Wednesday that would protect access to broader fertility treatments, including IVF.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., sponsored the legislation. She had both of her children using IVF, explaining to reporters Tuesday morning that infertility has been "one of the most heartbreaking struggles of my life."

"Mark my words, if we don't act now, it will only get worse," she said.

And in the House, Democrats have railed against Republicans who have pushed back on the Alabama ruling but have signed on to the Life at Conception Act, which has 124 GOP cosponsors.

The bill, introduced last year, would define a human being as humans "at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization" and protect equal protection "for the right of life of each born and preborn human person." It does not include exceptions for IVF.

House Majority PAC, a leading pro-Democrat fund, released a memo Friday saying it can guarantee that vulnerable GOP lawmakers' support for the bill "will be used against them" in "competitive House districts across the country this fall."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alabama IVF ruling: Senate Republicans reject national protections