Monday, May 20

Why “fetal personhood” is troubling the right

As IVF grew in popularity, so did its opponents’ concerns. Standard practice involves creating multiple embryos, which are screened for genetic abnormalities, and those that appear healthiest can be transferred. Extra embryos are often frozen; by one count, there are one and a half million frozen embryos in the United States. After a set period of time, they could be donated to science or destroyed, just as the Catholic Church feared.

The anti-abortion movement won a partial victory for protecting life at conception in 2001, when President George W. Bush banned the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, but President Barack Obama he reversed the policy eight years later.

Since the late 2000s, voters have rejected ballot initiatives aimed at enshrining fetal personhood in at least five states. Voters in Deep Mississippi seemed likely to approve a personhood measure in 2011. But in the weeks before the election, doctors and abortion rights groups had warned of the threat to IVF and birth control, and the initiative failed, 58% to 42%.

In criminal law, however, the personhood of the fetus has become entrenched. In 1986, Minnesota passed a law that considered the death of a fetus to be homicide under some circumstances. More than 30 states now “give full recognition to unborn victims of violence,” in the words of the National Right to Life Committee, applying fetal homicide laws at any stage of development in the womb. Some states have similarly expanded child abuse laws to cover the fetus as well. Hundreds of women have been prosecuted under these laws, often for using drugs during pregnancy or, in some cases, after a miscarriage.

Politically speaking, it is much easier to crack down on these women, who may be struggling with poverty or addiction, than to target the often middle-class and wealthy couples who turn to IVF (the procedure costs between 12,000 and 30,000 dollars). IVF includes former Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian who opposes abortion. Pence and his wife Karen used in vitro fertilization, he revealed in 2022. Fertility treatments “deserve the protection of the law,” he said then. “They gave us great comfort during those long, difficult years when we struggled with infertility in our marriage.”