A wave of antiabortion statutes have swept through Republican-dominated legislatures in 10 states in recent months. A majority of these laws are extreme, evidently aimed at provoking legal challenges that may induce the Supreme Court, with its new conservative majority, to overturn the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Most recently, the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would enact an abortion ban “when a viable pregnancy is presumed to exist or has been confirmed" with up to 15 years in jail for violators.
The constitutional right to an abortion hangs in the balance. But the new laws threaten not only those who choose to end a pregnancy but also those who are attempting to start one. That’s because antiabortion laws can impinge on all sorts of reproductive choices, potentially including the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other assisted reproductive technologies.
In IVF, a woman’s eggs are fertilized by sperm in a petri dish. If all goes well, embryos are created, and one or more of those embryos is either transferred into her uterus a few days later or frozen for a future transfer cycle. When a woman becomes pregnant without having used all the embryos produced, she (and her partner, if she has one) must decide whether to discard the extras, donate them to someone else, allow them to be used in research or keep them frozen for their own possible use later. And when IVF patients choose to have their embryos undergo pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to diagnose a genetic disease, or pre-implantation genetic screening to screen for chromosome abnormalities, embryos carrying the disease or having an abnormal number of chromosomes will be discarded.
How do these technologies relate to abortion? For more than 45 years, the organized antiabortion movement has maintained that life begins at conception. This is why it has blocked all federal funding for research that uses human embryos. That belief is also the core rationale for the existence of so-called “embryo adoption” programs at such organizations as Nightlight Christian Adoptions and the National Embryo Donation Center. It has become a bedrock conviction of the organized antiabortion movement. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, people who live in states with restrictive antiabortion laws could find that their access to at least some forms of assisted reproduction will be affected as well.
Such attitudes are rooted in history. In the early 1970s, as British and Australian scientists and physicians were developing IVF, American biomedical researchers also became interested in pursuing the technology. Americans had varied opinions about the desirability of conceiving a baby in a petri dish (they used the term “test-tube baby” back then). Among feminists, political liberals and moderates some were in favor, some opposed, some neutral. On the right, however, especially among religious conservatives and particularly after the Roe v. Wade decision, there was a widespread belief that IVF was a profound threat to the moral order.
Given this intense opposition from such conservatives — and with no comparably organized group on the left making a counterargument — researchers who argued for federal funding for IVF research found most national politicians reluctant to take any position on the issue. Instead, in 1975 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) instituted a “temporary” moratorium on federal funding for human embryo research, promising to create a commission, to be called the Ethics Advisory Board, to study the matter and recommend a course of action.
After that announcement, the agency dragged its feet. Three years passed. President Gerald Ford’s Republican administration had given way to President Jimmy Carter’s Democratic one and the Ethics Advisory Board had not yet even been finalized when the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in England on July 25, 1978.
IVF was no longer a theoretical issue. Brown was in obvious good health, and the English team responsible for her birth — Robert Edwards, Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy — had another baby on the way. In the United States, at a hastily-called hearing in the House of Representatives a week later, members from both parties took the administrators at HEW to task for failing to make progress on the creation of policies to deal with the new technology.
Perhaps feeling chastened, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano moved quickly, filling the remaining slots on the Ethics Advisory Board and setting it to work that September. Six months later, in March 1979, the board — which included a noted Catholic priest, Georgetown University theologian and Professor of Christian Ethics Richard A. McCormick — unanimously recommended that HEW rescind the funding moratorium and allow the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies to fund research on human IVF and on human embryos up to the age of 14 days.
When rumors of these recommendations surfaced about a month before the board’s public announcement, several antiabortion organizations preemptively leaped into action, placing a display ad in the New York Times declaring IVF a “morally abhorrent” technology. They followed up with a mass letter-writing campaign to Congress. Although surveys taken after Brown’s birth showed that a majority of Americans now approved of IVF for infertile married couples, these were not the people who wrote to their senators and representatives. Of the nearly 13,000 letters that poured into Congress, 98 percent opposed the Ethics Advisory Board’s recommendations.
These tactics worked. Califano first delayed releasing the report, and then he called for additional public comment. Soon after, he was replaced in a Cabinet shake-up. His successor, Patricia Harris, went him one better, simply ignoring the board and its recommendations. The board’s charter expired before the end of Carter’s presidency, and it was disbanded. The funding moratorium remained. In 1995, 20 years after the “temporary” funding ban was first imposed, President Bill Clinton decided to lift it, only to have the Republican-controlled Congress swiftly reinstate it by attaching a rider to the following year’s appropriations bill. Called the Dickey-Wicker amendment, the rider has appeared in every appropriations bill to this day.
As a result, in 2019, NIH and other federal agencies are still prohibited from approving grants for any project in which human embryos are destroyed. And although many of those who oppose abortion have made peace with the use of IVF by heterosexual married couples, there is still considerable opposition to the destruction of unused embryos and to embryo research.
In terms of these most recent antiabortion laws, it’s clear that the greatest danger at the moment is the challenge to a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. But given the historical opposition of abortion opponents to key elements of contemporary reproductive technology, it’s not too much of stretch to wonder whether intrusions into these other areas of reproduction will follow.