Egg in IVF process Photo: Pixabay.

Alabama Supreme Court’s Ruling Granting Embryos Personhood Generates Profound Reactions and New IVF Legislation

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Alabama has passed new legislation extending legal immunity to fertility clinics handling frozen embryos, after a previous ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court granting extrauterine embryos personhood caused clinics within the state to close. 

On Feb. 16, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that frozen embryos were considered children under state law and were thus subject to the states’ Wrongful Death of a Minor statute. The courts’ ruling stemmed from a case involving three couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF), whose frozen embryos were dropped and destroyed by a patient at the hospital in which the fertility clinic was located. After the ruling three of Alabama’s eight IVF providers immediately ceased operation, producing a national outcry. 

The plaintiffs’ lawsuit against the clinic and the hospital for the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act was initially dismissed by a trial court, however this decision was overturned on appeal by the Supreme Court of Alabama.

In its decision the Supreme Court of Alabama,  ruled that the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act applied “to all unborn children without limitation. And that includes unborn children who are not located in utero at the time they are killed.” 

On March 6, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed legislation  granting, “civil and criminal immunity for death or damage to an embryo to any individual or entity when providing or receiving services related to in vitro fertilization;”and criminal immunity and damage calculations for manufacturers of goods used to facilitate IVF. 

As a result of the legislation, two of the three clinics which had suspended services have since reopened. However the clinic that was at the center of the court’s case has remained closed. 

Although the legislation provides criminal and civil immunity to IVF providers, it fails to address  the issue of an embryos’ legal status. The question of an embryos’ personhood remains unaddressed by the legislation, and the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling granting extrauterine embryos personhood still stands. 

Queens College English Professor Karen Weingarten, author of Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940, expressed concerns about  the rulings’ potential impact on the United States as a whole. She said, “I find [the ruling] deeply disturbing. We might see other conservative states follow suit, and as a consequence IVF will be harder to access in these states.”

Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, many states have severely curtailed access to abortion or removed it entirely, with only 23 states protecting the right to abortion. Alabama is one of 14 states with a total abortion ban at all stages of pregnancy.

Professor Briallen Hopper, Assistant Director for the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation commented on the effects overturning Roe has had on reproductive rights across the U.S. .

 “Reproductive rights were already severely limited in the US before Roe was overturned. Now things are even worse: Abortion is criminalized throughout vast areas of the country, and this endangers the lives and freedom of everyone who is pregnant or might become pregnant in those areas. And now they are coming after fertility treatment. It’s horrifying,” she said. 

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