Fertility clinics destroy embryos all the time. Why aren’t conservatives after them?
By Margo Kaplan
Margo Kaplan is an associate professor at Rutgers Law School.
Last month, my husband and I signed forms donating an embryo we had conceived to medical research. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans arevowing to defund Planned Parenthood for allowing women who have abortions to make the same choice.
My husband and I used in vitro fertilization to conceive both our children. The process involved extracting my eggs, fertilizing them in a lab and implanting a healthy embryo inside me. Many patients — like my husband and me — produce more embryos (also called “pre-embryos” before they are implanted) than they can use. So clinics cryogenically freeze them until patients choose to use them in another IVF cycle, dispose of them, donate them to scientific research (which results in their destruction) or offer them to an infertile couple. After two years and careful thought, we chose to donate ours to research. We hope our choice will help doctors find cures for debilitating and fatal illnesses such as Huntington’s disease and ALS.
Like our fertility clinic, Planned Parenthood allows women to donate to medical research tissue from an embryo or fetus they will not carry to term. Like our clinic, Planned Parenthood receives no profit for this, only reimbursement for its costs (indeed, the full, unedited version of the videothat sparked recent Republican outrage provides evidence that Planned Parenthood does not profit from giving women this choice).
Yet there are striking differences between my experience and that of a woman seeking an abortion. In Pennsylvania (where my fertility clinic is located), a woman seeking an abortion must receive state-directed counseling designed to discourage her from the procedure. She must then wait at least 24 hours until she can continue. In other states, women are forced to undergounnecessary and invasive ultrasounds, watch or listen to a description of the ultrasound, and hear a lecture on how the embryo or fetus is a human life. Clinics in some states must provide them with medically inaccurate information on the risks of abortion. After all that, women often cannot have an abortion without waiting an additional one to three days, depending on the state.
In contrast, all my husband and I had to do was sign a form. Our competence to choose the outcome of our embryo was never questioned. There were no mandatory lectures on gestation, no requirement that I be explicitly told that personhood begins at conception or that I view a picture of a day-five embryo. There was no compulsory waiting period for me to reconsider my decision. In fact, no state imposes these restrictions — so common for abortion patients — on patients with frozen embryos. With rare exceptions, the government doesn’t interfere with an IVF patient’s choices except to resolve disagreements between couples.
The disparity between how the law treats abortion patients and IVF patients reveals an ugly truth about abortion restrictions: that they are often less about protecting life than about controlling women’s bodies. Both IVF and abortion involve the destruction of fertilized eggs that could potentially develop into people. But only abortion concerns women who have had sex that they don’t want to lead to childbirth. Abortion restrictions use unwanted pregnancy as a punishment for “irresponsible sex” and remind women of the consequences of being unchaste: If you didn’t want to endure a mandatory vaginal ultrasound, you shouldn’t have had sex in the first place.
IVF patients make less-attractive targets because we don’t challenge the expectation that women want to be mothers. Abortion, on the other hand, thwarts conservative ideals about a woman’s proper role as a wife and mother. This may be why, counterintuitively, I have greater freedom to decide what to do with an embryo in a petri dish than a pregnancy in my own body.
This disparity also reveals a great deal about whose bodies our laws restrict. Unlike IVF patients, who are primarily wealthy and white, women who have abortions are disproportionately poor and women of color, groups it has always been popular to condemn and regulate. These women also bear the brunt of abortion restrictions far more than wealthy whites; for example, low-income women and women of color are more likely to use Medicaid for health expenses, and federal law prohibits that program from covering abortion. Mandatory wait periods increase their travel expenses and time away from jobs that often don’t give sick or personal days. It’s more than just patronizing for states to require women to take mandatory “think it over” time — it’s downright cruel to low-income women who must take more unpaid time off and, if the clinic isn’t close to home, either either find accommodations nearby or make the trip twice. Women must save money to pay for the procedure; the longer it takes to save, the more the pregnancy progresses, the more expensive the procedure becomes and the farther they must travel to find a clinic.
The law’s conflicting treatment of the two procedures is no coincidence: Anti-choice organizations have avoided targeting IVF even as they’ve sought radical restrictions on abortion access. Conservatives focus on legislation thatfacilitates embryo donation to other couples, rather than laws that limit the choices of IVF patients; they even take pains to deemphasize the impact of proposed “personhood amendments” on IVF. This distinction cannot be based on principle — if life begins at conception, then anti-choice groups have every reason to put the estimated 400,000 to 1 million frozen embryos in the United States at the forefront of their efforts. And while there are far more abortions every year than embryos destroyed, that’s an unlikely explanation for their focus: National Right to Life’s Web site also lists assisted suicide as a primary issue, and there have been fewer than 2,000 cases of legal assisted suicide in recent U.S. history.
It’s possible that anti-choice organizations are simply going after the more politically vulnerable group. If so, we need to take a hard look at why women who have abortions are so much easier to regulate than IVF patients. It’s telling that women who have unplanned pregnancies through sexual activity and who are disproportionately poor and minority are so much more open to attack.