The IVF Debate: Senate Republicans Face Political Challenges

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In February, Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that embryos are human, creating a political tremor nationwide. The Democratic Party quickly labeled the decision as anti-in-vitro fertilization, arguing that Republicans’ anti-abortion stances conflict with a pro-IVF position, placing Republicans in a challenging spot during an election year.

The ruling came after three Alabama couples sued the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center and the Center for Reproductive Medicine for accidentally destroying their embryos during the IVF process. The court’s decision held IVF facilities accountable for destroyed embryos now recognized as legal persons. While IVF wasn’t banned, providing and obtaining IVF became more complicated.

Doctors from the Alabama Fertility Clinic take photos of the votes as the debate over SB159 bill (IVF Fertility Bill) in the House Chambers is voted on, Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Democrats have put Republicans on the defensive over Alabama’s decision in the Senate, with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) summarizing their messaging strategy. “It’s personal when a majority male state Supreme Court suggests people like me, who became pregnant with modern medicine’s help, should be in jail cells, not nurseries,” Duckworth said. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) added, “When Republicans support legislation equating a fertilized egg to a living, breathing, human person, that is incompatible with supporting IVF!”

Senate Democrats introduced legislation to enshrine IVF and contraceptive rights, but Republicans, nearly unanimous in opposition, argue there is no effort to ban fertility treatment or contraceptives. Republicans say Democrats’ bills open doors to gene editing and cloning, erase basic religious protections, and define “contraceptives” to include abortion medications. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) expressed concerns, saying the proposal would make the abortion drug mifepristone available nationwide, undermining state laws.

Republicans in the Senate split into several groups: some remain silent to avoid controversy, other pro-life senators support IVF while grappling with ethical issues regarding discarded and frozen embryos, and others seek expanded IVF protections but debate federal regulation’s extent.

Senate Republicans steering clear of controversy

Senate Republican leadership has mostly maintained silence on the IVF battle. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), along with Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and John Boozman (R-AR), have avoided the issue. This approach has drawn criticism from within the party, with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) recently slamming McConnell for lack of leadership and negotiation with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) ahead of the vote on the Right to Contraception Act.

The IVF Debate: Senate Republicans Face Political Challenges
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with reporters following a Republican policy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Social media engagement highlights the difference in leadership’s response to the IVF issue. Schumer posted about it 15 times since February’s ruling, while McConnell and his leadership team have remained silent. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) explained this inaction, saying Republicans aren’t posting about IVF because it’s not under threat, unlike issues like the border and inflation that top polls.

Other Senate Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), have also chosen to remain quiet. While Paul hasn’t commented since February’s ruling, he had previously supported a pro-IVF addition to the Life at Conception Act. Similarly, Moran has been silent since Alabama’s ruling, and Tillis has stayed under wraps except for a spokesperson’s statement in March supporting IVF and dismissing worries about other states following Alabama’s lead.

Senate Republican outliers on the IVF issue

While most Republicans claim to support IVF, some acknowledge its ethical dilemmas. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been vocal about the bioethical complexities of IVF, suggesting commonsense guardrails are needed. His colleagues, including Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS), have varied opinions on when life begins and the legal personhood of embryos.

Discarding embryos is common in the IVF process, with embryos deemed abnormal or unwanted often discarded. The National Embryo Donation Center estimates as many as 1.5 million embryos are frozen or abandoned across the U.S.

Sen. Lankford (R-OK) and others have raised concerns about frozen embryos, calling it a moral challenge. While Lankford supports IVF, he emphasizes alternatives to IVF and the role of basic healthcare in fertility, highlighting lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise in addressing infertility. Federal data supports these claims, noting lifestyle factors significantly affect fertility.

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, left, and his wife Cindy Lankford, right, greet supporters at a Republican Party watch party on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Lankford advocates for alternative solutions like embryo adoption and increased support for family infertility treatments other than IVF. He notes that health and nutrition should be part of the fertility conversation, helping families explore options beyond IVF, which is often a last resort due to high costs.

Lankford also criticized the Democrats’ Veterans Families Health Services Act of 2023, arguing it opened doors to human cloning and embryo discrimination.

Pro-abortion Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have sided with Democrats on IVF legislation, voting for the Right to Contraception bill and supporting federal protections for IVF.

Senate Republicans pushing back on Democrats’ claims

Senate Republicans focus on rebutting Democrats’ claims that fertility treatment rights are under attack. Sen. Tommy Tuberville has called Democrats’ framing “totally false,” asserting that Republicans fully support IVF. His communication director stated, “Democrats are lying about states like Alabama. No one is trying to ban IVF or contraception.”

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) blocked the Access to Family Building Act, calling it unnecessary because no states have banned, or plan to ban, IVF. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) echoed these sentiments, with Scott emphasizing contraception’s accessibility.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) launched a significant ad campaign to counter claims against Republicans regarding IVF, highlighting his personal connection to the issue. Leading a resolution supporting IVF, Scott emphasized its importance for families struggling with infertility.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on reproductive rights, Republican senators attempted to shift the narrative, arguing Democrats seek “abortion on demand.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stated on social media that Republicans wouldn’t limit access to fertility clinics or birth control.

Senate Republicans supporting federal legislation to protect IVF

Many Republicans support federal protections for IVF and contraceptive rights. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) expressed support, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has endorsed reproductive rights legislation led by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). Their bill aims to ensure easier access to safe birth control without funding abortion providers.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Katie Britt (R-AL) introduced a bill to cut Medicaid funding to states that might ban IVF. Cruz noted its overwhelming national support and emphasized the miracle of IVF in enabling parenthood. Britt has been a prominent advocate for IVF, leading internal party discussions and garnering support from former President Trump.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Katie Britt talks to supporters with her family by her side during her watch party, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo/Butch Dill)

Sens. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) also backed the bill, emphasizing its importance for those seeking parenthood. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) initially supported federal legislation protecting IVF, though he later suggested the issue might best be addressed by state legislatures.

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to expand insurance coverage for IVF, calling it a “miracle” that aligns with the GOP’s pro-family stance. Sen. Markwayne Mullins (R-OK) expressed openness to federal protection for IVF if necessary. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) called for better coordination of government programs for pregnant women and unspecified legal protection for IVF.

Senate Republicans for leaving IVF up to states

Several Senate Republicans, while supportive of IVF, believe the issue should be managed at the state level. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) have endorsed this approach, emphasizing state autonomy in deciding IVF regulations. Sens. Mike Braun (R-IN) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) have also expressed confidence in state legislatures’ ability to address IVF issues. A spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) reiterated this stance, advocating for state action over federal intervention on IVF.

Emily Hallas
Emily Hallas
Breaking News Reporter. Previously, Emily was a member of U.S. Senator Tim Scott's communications team.

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