Alabama legislature votes to restore IVF access

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Alabama’s GOP-controlled legislature voted Thursday to give doctors who provide in-vitro fertilization civil and criminal immunity for any death or damage to embryos.

The votes in the House and the Senate come nearly two weeks after the state Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are children, igniting a national debate over how IVF is performed in the U.S. and putting pressure on Republicans grappling with how to convey their views on abortion ahead of the 2024 election.

The legislation aims to provide fertility clinics that have paused IVF services since the court’s ruling the legal clarity needed to resume operations, though GOP lawmakers intend to pursue a more thorough review of state laws on the issue.

“My goal this week has been to try to find some compromise that would open our clinics for these families,” said state Rep. Terri Collins, a Republican who sponsored the House version of the bill, shortly before the chamber’s vote. “Do we need to have the longer discussion? Yes, we do.”

Debate before the legislation’s passage revealed how fraught a topic this is for Republicans, who have been forced to address a politically sensitive and ethically complicated issue as a result of the Alabama high court’s decision. The comments from Alabama Republicans presage some of what their GOP colleagues across the country and in Washington, D.C., may soon be forced to address.

“To say that I’m a conflicted human being about this is just being dead honest that I don’t know the right answer to where we are,” said state Rep. Arnold Mooney, a Republican who abstained from voting on the bill. “I hate the fact that we have been put in a position to have to deal with something that wasn’t a problem. Things were working fine.”

Their Democratic colleagues argued the problem was of the Republican supermajority’s own making, by approving fetal personhood language that was amended into the state constitution in 2018. It’s an argument Democrats at the national level, including President Joe Biden, have also made as they seek to tie the current IVF conversation to the post-Dobbs debate on abortion in an effort to boost their electoral fortunes.

“It’s a good day when the chickens come home to roost,” said state Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, a Democrat. “I don’t blame [the state Supreme Court] for the ruling they made because that was the only choice we gave them. We didn’t clarify. We didn’t specify. We said, ‘That’s it.’ I don’t know how we thought in our itty bitty minds that something like this wasn’t going to happen.”

Lawmakers introduced identical versions of the bill in the House and Senate on Tuesday to advance the proposal more quickly to the desk of Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who has voiced support for the legislature’s efforts, and help the clinics to reopen. The two chambers now must swap their bills for final passage.

Alabama state Rep. Paul Lee, chair of the House’s health committee, said the soonest the legislation would take effect is Wednesday.

In their effort to reach a compromise that would help the state’s clinics, lawmakers have come under fire both from the anti-abortion movement and reproductive medicine groups. Sean Tipton, chief advocacy and policy officer at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, lauded legislators for trying to protect IVF but called the bill “inadequate” because it “fails to correct the Supreme Court’s nonsensical stance that fertilized eggs are scientifically and legally equivalent to children.”

“Without a more permanent and thorough fix, it will be difficult to recruit new physicians to the state and build their practices so they can continue to provide the best possible care to Alabamians,” Tipton said.

Collins said lawmakers plan to debate a more permanent legislative solution starting next week. That could include a version of a Louisiana law that has since the 1980s barred embryos from being discarded, or changes to the state’s constitution, which emphasizes the rights of “unborn children.”

Still, state lawmakers from both parties voiced reservations about the proposal. State Rep. Mark Gidley, a Republican, said he feared the legislation approved Thursday would be used by progressives to undermine the state’s long-standing anti-abortion policies.

“Alabama is probably one of the most pro-life states in the nation, and we can’t allow anything to interfere with our pro-life standard,” he said.

Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, a Republican who voted against the measure, said that the proposal would “grant immunity to murder,” voicing the sentiments of many in the anti-abortion movement who argue that life begins at conception whether or not that happens inside the uterus.

“What I had learned and read up to yesterday had me very concerned that the Alabama Supreme Court, in a state whose official position is pro-life and therefore defends that life begins at fertilization, could have possibly, I don’t know, but possibly uncovered a silent Holocaust going on in our state.”

And Democrats stalled passage of the legislation for hours in both the House and Senate, raising concerns about the broad immunity the legislation gives to providers and pressing for a more substantive change to state laws.

“I’m not interested in Band-Aids,” said state Rep. Barbara Drummond. “It’s time for Alabama to come up with a solution.”

But IVF patients who testified in the House health committee on Wednesday in support of the proposal stressed the urgent need for legislative action.

“Financially, we as families and women going through these treatments, we’re a desperate group of people, and we are going through very very time-sensitive treatments,” said LeeLee Ray, a woman from Huntsville who said the court’s decision has jeopardized her and her husband’s plans to use a surrogate. “I know that this could be a big issue but we have got to have some sort of fast action to get us back into our treatments.”