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Senate Republican blocks bill to protect IVF treatment

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., speaks to reporters before a Senate luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 12 in Washington, D.C.  (Kevin Dietsch)
By Kayla Guo New York Times

WASHINGTON – A Republican senator on Wednesday blocked quick passage of a bill that would establish federal protections for in vitro fertilization and other fertility treatments in the wake of a ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court that frozen embryos should be considered children.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., objected to approval of the measure, which would establish a federal right protecting access to IVF and fertility treatments, scuttling its chances for now.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., sought to pass the bill Wednesday under a procedure that allows any one senator to object and stop it in its tracks, effectively daring Republicans to oppose it and highlighting divisions within the GOP on how to handle the issue.

“The bill before us today is a vast overreach that is full of poison pills that go way too far – far beyond ensuring legal access to IVF,” Hyde-Smith said on the Senate floor, adding that she supported access to IVF but that “this bill misses the mark.”

The legislation states that people have a right to “access assisted reproductive technology” – and that doctors have the right to provide it and insurers the right to cover it – without fear of prosecution.

Democrats orchestrated the attempt to pass the bill as they sought to point out the hypocrisy of Republicans who have rushed to voice support for IVF after the Alabama ruling, even though many of them have sponsored legislation that declares that life begins at the moment of fertilization. Such a bill could severely curtail or even outlaw aspects of the treatments.

“The shocking Alabama IVF ruling revealed the next front of the anti-choice crusade, attacking all forms of reproductive health care, not just abortion,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). “Today, our Republican colleagues chose to block legislation that would allow millions of Americans to continue to use IVF to help expand their families. These personal medical decisions belong to families, not the government.”

“This is really to call out my Republican colleagues,” Duckworth, who had two daughters via IVF treatment, said in an interview Wednesday. “If this is urgent and you care deeply about this as you say you do – like you’ve been saying in the last 72-plus hours since the Alabama Supreme Court ruling – then don’t object. Let this bill pass.” She argued that the bill’s protections were all the more essential since the legal decision.

The action was the latest instance of Republicans trying to walk a political tightrope – made more perilous by the Alabama ruling – since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and made real many Americans’ fears of losing their access to reproductive health care. Democrats have vowed to pummel Republicans on the issue this election year, buoyed by polls that show that access to abortion and contraception is a major concern for voters that could drive them away from Republicans.

“Make no mistake about it: What happened in Alabama is a direct consequence – a direct consequence – of the hard-right MAGA Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, said Tuesday. “And make no mistake about it: There will be other awful, restrictive decisions emanating from the Dobbs decision.”

At least three medical providers in Alabama have paused IVF treatments since the ruling, which stemmed from cases brought by couples whose embryos were destroyed in 2020 when a hospital patient removed frozen embryos from tanks of liquid nitrogen and dropped them on the floor.

Duckworth previously tried to pass a similar bill with unanimous consent in 2022, but Hyde-Smith objected. Duckworth said before Wednesday’s action that she planned to seek a roll call vote on the bill if Republicans blocked it, and that Schumer was “very supportive” about scheduling one after Congress funds the government before a pair of shutdown deadlines this week and next.

Some Republicans have said that they would look at the bill, but most others argued that it should be up to state legislatures – not the federal government – to protect fertility treatments. They sought to cast the Alabama ruling as an outlier and said the Legislature there would surely act soon to protect IVF.

“The Dobbs decision said that abortion is not part of the Constitution and they sent the issue back to the states. And I think that’s where it belongs,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., referring to the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe. “But I do support fertility technology.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said he wanted to see how states might address IVF protections before considering federal legislation.

“As these individual states look at all the different issues surrounding this particular issue in particular, you’re going to get a number of different ideas about how to approach it,” Rounds said Tuesday. “I personally do think that IVF needs to be a part of our future discussions.”

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said he believed the Alabama Legislature would pass protections for IVF, making a federal law unnecessary.

“Whether it needs federal legislation, I’m going to be open to considering whatever it might be, but I mean, it was done in such an isolated way,” Braun said of the Alabama ruling. He added that each state would “wrestle” with whether frozen embryos should be considered children.

In 2021, along with 15 other Republicans, Kennedy, Rounds and Braun cosponsored the Life at Conception Act, which would recognize a fertilized egg as a person entitled to equal protections under the 14th Amendment. If enacted, it could severely restrict IVF treatments, which typically involve the creation of several embryos. Only one is implanted, while the others are frozen to allow for subsequent attempts at a successful implantation.

The same bill won 166 Republican cosponsors in the House – including Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the current speaker, who on Friday issued a statement in support of IVF.

The measure was reintroduced in the House in January 2023, but some Republicans who had previously sponsored it – including some who face tough reelection races in districts won by President Joe Biden in 2020 – have refrained from signing on again. It has not been reintroduced in the Senate.

Anti-abortion activists heralded the Alabama decision as a step toward the broader acceptance of fetal personhood, even as Republicans sought to distance themselves from the implication that fertility treatments could be jeopardized.

“It’s been incredible to watch Republicans now scramble over the weekend to suddenly support IVF while many of these same Republicans are literally, right now, cosponsors of legislation that would enshrine fetal personhood,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Tuesday. “You cannot support IVF and support fetal personhood laws. They are fundamentally incompatible. You are not fooling anyone.”

In the House, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., circulated a nonbinding resolution Tuesday declaring support for access to IVF and other fertility treatments. But the measure is purely symbolic, with protections for neither.

Democrats said they would not be shy about reminding voters about Republicans’ records on the issue, which they believe will turn moderate and independent voters away from the GOP.

“Women aren’t just going to forget who is responsible for this – who ripped away their dreams of building their families,” Murray said. “This is what happens when Republican politicians take away women’s power over their own bodies.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.