Alabama’s governor signs bill to legally protect IVF treatments

By | March 7, 2024

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a Republican Party-proposed bill Wednesday night to legally protect in vitro fertilization, after weeks of opposition following a controversial state Supreme Court ruling that embryos are considered children.

Ivey, a Republican, signed the measure shortly after lawmakers passed it and sent it to her desk.

“IVF is undoubtedly a complex issue and I expect there will be more work to come, but at this point I am confident that this legislation will provide the guarantees our IVF clinics need and will ensure they provide the services to resume immediately,” she said. said in a statement.

The swift action by the Republican-dominated Legislature ended a tumultuous weeks-long sprint by lawmakers in the ruby-red state, sparked by the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling.

Although the legislation passed late Wednesday does not answer the core question raised by the court’s decision — whether an embryo created through IVF should be treated as a child under Alabama law — Republican supporters of the measure that it would serve as a short-term solution that would allow clinics in the state that had suspended services to reopen.

Immediate reactions from such clinics were mixed, with two saying they would resume services soon, but one expressing great caution.

The passed legislation does not define or clarify whether, under state law, frozen embryos created through IVF have the same rights as children. Rather, the bill is intended to protect doctors, clinics and other health care workers who provide IVF treatments and services by providing such workers with civil and criminal “immunity.”

The new law will provide “civil and criminal immunity for death or damage to an embryo to any individual or entity in the provision or receipt of services related to in vitro fertilization.”

It states that “no action, suit or criminal prosecution for the injury or death of an embryo shall be brought or maintained against any individual or entity in the provision or receipt of services in connection with in vitro fertilization.”

During debates in both chambers Tuesday, lawmakers removed the word “goods” from the phrase “goods or services” in the bill, meaning companies that supply items integral to the IVF process could still face civil lawsuits – but not criminal charges – if their products are determined to damage or destroy embryos. The passed bill also limits monetary awards in such lawsuits to the price patients paid for the affected IVF cycle.

Reproductive rights advocates have said suppliers of such goods could especially include the liquid solutions that clinics use to grow embryos.

These groups criticized the legislation, saying it failed to fully protect IVF care from the broader issues raised by the ruling.

Barbara Collura, president of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, said in a statement that while her group was “relieved that clinics in Alabama can reopen their IVF programs,” “the legislation does not address the underlying issue of the status of embryos as part of the IVF process – threatening the long-term standard of care for IVF patients.”

“There is still more work to be done,” Collura said.

Karla Torres, a senior adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the bill “falls far short of what Alabamians want and need to access fertility care in their state without fear.”

“Even on its face, this bill attempts to grant personhood to embryos, reinforcing the state Supreme Court’s extreme ruling recognizing embryos as children,” Torres said, adding that the legislation amounted to “backtracking on light of the state and national public outcry to allow embryos to politicians to save face.”

Still, at least two fertility clinics in the state have indicated they are prepared to resume embryo transfers and other care this week.

“We believe it provides the protection we need to initiate or resume care,” said Dr. Janet Bouknight, who works at Alabama Fertility – one of the clinics that stopped IVF after the ruling – about the legislation.

But UAB officials, who had also suspended care, were cautious.

“As UAB moves to immediately resume IVF treatments, we will continue to assess developments and advocate for protections for IVF patients and providers,” Hannah Echols, a spokesperson for UAB, said in a statement.

Wednesday’s votes followed multiple hearings in recent weeks, with hours of emotional and tense debate among state lawmakers, who, despite widespread objections to the proposals, repeatedly voted overwhelmingly to advance them.

During discussions last week about the bills, reproductive rights Democrats joined anti-abortion Republicans in criticizing the bill for failing to explicitly clarify whether an embryo created through IVF must be considered a child under Alabama law are being treated.

Democrats had sought language clarifying that embryos were not legally children, while some Republicans had pushed for “personhood” language indicating that they were. Democrats in the Republican Party-controlled Legislature had introduced their own bills that explicitly sought to clarify that an embryo “outside the womb” is not “considered an unborn child,” though those bills did not advance.

Republican supporters of the passed bill repeatedly said the legislation is flawed and that it is intended as a quick fix to allow the state’s several IVF clinics that closed after the ruling to reopen without fear of criminal prosecution or civil lawsuits for their employees.

In her statement after signing it, Ivey called the bill a “short-term measure” that could allow “Alabama couples hoping and praying to become parents” to “grow their families through IVF.”

Her signature — at least for now — caps weeks of national backlash caused by the state court’s decision that embryos created through in vitro fertilization are considered children.

Specifically, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that people can be held legally responsible for destroying embryos under a state wrongful death law, which declares that an unjustified or negligent act that results in a person’s death is a is a civil offence. As a result, providers of IVF services and embryo transfers could face repercussions if embryos were discarded – a common part of the IVF process, as some embryos may have genetic abnormalities or may no longer be needed.

Last month’s ruling immediately prompted several IVF clinics to suspend their services and raised broader concerns that anti-reproductive rights conservatives could follow the medical procedure elsewhere.

The decision sparked a huge outcry against Republicans in Alabama and across the U.S. who oppose reproductive rights — including calls from former President Donald Trump to address the issue “swiftly” — leaving state lawmakers scrambling to pass a to reach a solution.

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