Republican-controlled Alabama legislature passes bills to protect IVF

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(Reuters) -Alabama's Republican-led legislature on Thursday passed bills aimed at protecting the IVF industry after the state Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos should be considered children, prompting at least three Alabama providers to halt the fertility procedure.

A bill passed the Senate 34-0, with one member abstaining, after the House measure passed 94-6.

Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, has signaled that she will support the legislation. If signed by Ivey, the legislation would protect IVF providers from both criminal charges and civil lawsuits. It was unclear when the measure would reach Ivey's desk, and her office did not immediately return calls for comment on Thursday.

The Feb. 16 Alabama Supreme Court ruling left unclear how to legally store, transport and use embryos, and some IVF patients sought to move their frozen embryos out of Alabama.

Republicans nationwide have scrambled to contain backlash from the decision by the Alabama Supreme Court, whose elected judges are all Republican. Democrats have seized on it as more evidence that reproductive rights are under assault.

The bill that passed both chambers of Alabama's legislature on Thursday would not necessarily mean IVF providers could revert to business as usual, according to its sponsor, Republican state Senator Tim Melson.

Replying to another senator's question about what Alabama IVF providers could do with unused embryos under the proposed law, Melson said during Senate debate on Thursday that some providers told him they planned to start storing embryos that aren't implanted into a uterus perpetually as a result of the court ruling.

"That's going to probably become their policy," he said. "That's not in effect, but that's what they're looking at doing."

The Alabama legislature passed the bill the day after a similar effort to protect the IVF industry at a federal level was stymied in Congress.

Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi on Wednesday blocked an effort by Democrats to rush through federal legislation that would guarantee access to IVF treatments and facilities without fear of prosecution, while also shielding IVF providers and health insurance companies.

IVF, or in vitro fertilization, involves combining eggs and sperm in a laboratory dish to create an embryo for couples having difficulty conceiving.

The Alabama high court issued its ruling in response to three families' lawsuits against a fertility clinic and hospital for failing to properly safeguard their frozen embryos, resulting in their destruction when a patient improperly accessed them.

The ruling was based on the state's 2018 Sanctity of Life Amendment approved by voters that supports "the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children."

On Friday, the Alabama Attorney General's office said it had "no intention" of prosecuting IVF providers or families who use their services.

(Reporting by Julia Harte in New York; Editing by Nia Williams and Paul Thomasch)