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The push for embryo rights worries IVF patients and doctors in the Midwest

For seven years, Jacqueline Brock endured grueling fertility treatments – and all the emotions that came with it.

“I had to stop going on outings with our friends because they would bring their kids or talk about their kids and I would just cry,” she said. “I didn’t go to a lot of baby showers and stuff because I couldn’t physically handle it.”

Last year, Brock, who lives with her husband James in West Des Moines, Iowa, underwent a third round of in vitro fertilization, or IVF. It yielded two embryos. One was implanted. This time it worked, resulting in one of the best moments of her life.

“I got a call from our fertility clinic and all the nurses and doctors are on the phone. And they were all screaming that we were pregnant,” she said.

Brock’s daughter, Eloise, was born in January.

But her joy quickly turned to frustration when a month later the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos created through IVF should be considered children.

Brock felt sorry for the women who interrupted their IVF cycles during the initial confusion after the ruling, but it also made her concerned about the couple’s remaining embryo. They want a second child.

At the time, several Midwestern states, including Iowa, Indiana, Kansas and Missouri, were considering bills that could impact families seeking IVF. The bills would give certain rights to embryos and fetuses that are typically attributed to a person.

“I remember I just started crying, and I was so angry,” she said.

Doctors told Brock that for medical reasons she likely cannot use the remaining embryo to carry another pregnancy on her own. So she and her husband are considering other options, such as surrogacy. But the precarious legal landscape worries them greatly.

“We were talking about, ‘Should we get a lawyer to figure out what to do with our embryo, or should we move our embryo to another state so it’s safe?’” Brock said.

“I just never really believed that would happen.”

During the legislature in 13 states, lawmakers have introduced bills that could give rights to embryos and fetuses that generally protect a person, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that supports abortion rights.

The Iowa House has passed a bill that would increase criminal penalties for causing someone to lose a pregnancy without their consent and change the term “terminates a human pregnancy” to “causing the death of an unborn child.”

Kansas was looking at a bill that would provide child support to “unborn children” from the date of conception. In Missouri, where abortion is largely banned, the state House saw a bill stating that “unborn children… are entitled to the same rights, powers, privileges, justice and protections” as any other person in the state. There was also a Senate bill that set standards for how courts determine custody of an embryo.

Lawmakers in Indiana have introduced a bill that would allow pregnant people to claim their fetuses as dependents on their state taxes.

A bill in Ohio would have recognized the constitutional rights of “all unborn human individuals from the moment of conception.”

None of the bills passed this year, but they are expected to appear in the future.

Anti-abortion groups in Nebraska are currently pushing a ballot initiative that would ban abortions after the first trimester and define “an unborn person at any stage of development” as a person.

At the same time, there is a shifting patchwork of state abortion bans that further complicate and complicate reproductive choices. In Iowa, a decision from the state Supreme Court on whether or not the 2023 ban on fetal heartbeat abortion should go into effect is expected in June. Missouri’s secretary of state has an initiative petition with more than 380,000 signatures on his desk from Missourians hoping to put the abortion issue to a vote.

Iowa Rep.  Skyler Wheeler, a Republican, said the "unborn person" The definition is already in Iowa state law and did not endanger IVF during a debate in the House of Representatives in February.

Grant Gerlock

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Iowa Public Radio

Iowa Rep. Skyler Wheeler, a Republican, said the definition of “unborn person” is already in Iowa state law and did not endanger IVF during a House debate in February.

Policy experts say they expect anti-abortion lawmakers to continue pushing for reproductive rights and to advance similar bills in next year’s legislative sessions.

“The bigger push has been to really try to restrict many different types of sexual and reproductive health care,” said Kimya Forouzan, the Guttmacher Institute’s chief policy officer. “And one of the ways to do that is by enshrining personality in law.”

These initiatives, along with the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision and the disruption it caused to the state’s IVF clinics, are concerning to medical professionals.

“I just never really believed that that would happen,” said Abby Mancuso, an infertility specialist in Des Moines, Iowa.

It is common to create additional embryos during IVF in case of abnormalities or other problems, but embryos can easily become damaged because they were central to the decision in Alabama in this case, she said.

When embryos are legally considered children, that could have a detrimental effect on doctors, Mancuso said.

“If you are an embryologist or an institution and you could be held criminally liable for any damage to these microscopic cells, that is obviously a concern,” she said.

There is also the problem of civil liability, which puts facilities at risk of being sued for big money and damages.

All this means that debates over abortion and IVF protection are expected to play an important role in the upcoming elections.

‘It’s difficult to really write in exceptions’

Supporters of bills that define life as beginning at conception say they want to make sure they are written so they protect IVF and fertility treatments.

Following the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision, Governor Kay Ivey signed a law protecting IVF patients and providers from legal liability.

When Iowa Democrats raised concerns during a House debate in March about how a bill that would change “human pregnancy” to “unborn person” could affect IVF in the state, the Republican Representative Skyler Wheeler, who sponsored the bill, dismissed it as irrelevant. and alarmist.

“Sometimes you hear things and you see things, and you just can’t avoid the madness,” he said.

Critics disagree with this sentiment.

“It’s difficult to really write exceptions that are really going to protect families and IVF and other fertility treatments, while still adhering to the position that an embryo is a person,” Sarah Wilson, an attorney who specializes in fertility and adoption practices, said.

In the meantime, Wilson said it’s adding more stress to her clients, who are already going through a difficult and complicated process.

“Instead of the hope and excitement I usually hear from them, they come to me worried and scared,” Wilson said. “They are unsure whether their legal origins will be protected, or whether they will make decisions about their own medical care.”

Some of Wilson’s clients are nervous about what the future might hold for states like Iowa and are talking about pursuing fertility treatments outside the state.

Jacqueline Brock and her husband are considering contacting an attorney like Wilson to explore their options for their remaining embryo. This includes moving it to a neighboring state so it doesn’t fall into legal gray areas in the future.

“It’s really scary to think that we have this embryo, and if we decide to throw it away, we could potentially face criminal charges for doing that,” she said. “And there aren’t many options for us with the embryo.”

This story arises from a collaboration between Side effects Public media and the Midwest newsroom – a collaboration in the field of investigative journalism, including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Public Media News in Nebraska, St. Louis Public RadioAnd NPR.

Copyright 2024 Side Effects Public Media

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