The second day of the much-contested Supreme Court confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday found us in the middle of a deeply crowded story: Despite overwhelming disapproval for the move to push forward with confirmation (disregarding precedent that the American people should have a say in an election year) and with committee members testing positive for the virus they were likely exposed to at a related super-spreader event, the nominee’s takes on reproductive healthcare (from abortion to in vitro fertilization (IVF)) remained one of the most concerning parts of the whole affair.
It’s understood that Barrett, as Trump has repeatedly promised (and advocates have repeatedly warned), is a judge who would fall more on the line of anti-choice legislation. But what does her background and record potentially mean for other parts of reproductive rights and justice, like IVF?
Well, TL;DR: It’s complicated and worrisome!
Coney Barrett notably refused to give an answer on her views on IVF on Tuesday after she was asked about her prior support for initiatives from anti-choice group St. Joseph County Right to Life — including a 2006 open-letter that said “We, the following citizens of Michigan, oppose abortion on demand and defend the right to life from fertilization to natural death. Please continue to pray to end abortion.” The organization also holds the (extreme, but not totally uncommon among anti-choice individuals) belief that IVF should be outlawed, as they believe discarding unviable embryos counts as an abortion.
(Important point: The reality is that “ending abortion” in any legal sense — that is, overturning Roe v. Wade or Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt or making abortions less accessible or illegal in certain states — wouldn’t end the need for abortions or end people from pursuing them, it would just make it significantly more dangerous or deadly for people who need them.)
But, aside from these (necessary) abortion conversations, the question of the role legal definitions of “personhood” (particularly those backed by religion and not science) could play in major rulings that determine whether people can access reproductive healthcare (and whether doctors can do the work of safely and affordably providing this care without potential legal threats) was one that legislators needed more clarity on (obviously!). After all, groups like St. Joseph County Right to Life “support the criminalization of the doctors who perform abortions. At this point we are not supportive of criminalizing the women. We would be supportive of criminalizing the discarding of frozen embryos or selective reduction through the IVF process,” per a statement from the group’s executive director to The Guardian earlier this month.
When Senators asked Coney Barrett about her decision to sign the open letter, and specifically if she agreed “that IVF is tantamount to manslaughter, she replied: “I signed it on the way out of church. It was consistent with the views of my church, and it simply said we support the right to life from conception to natural death. It took no position on IVF.”
My family is not abstract.
I agree, @SenBlumenthal—it is chilling to watch Judge Barrett refuse to state clearly that criminalizing IVF would be unconstitutional. Without IVF, I wouldn’t have my two beautiful girls. https://t.co/WgdU7s2QbE
— Tammy Duckworth (@SenDuckworth) October 13, 2020
However, she refused to answer whether she was in support of protecting access to IVF or to give clarity on how exactly she’d approach these kind of bioethical questions. Which is never something you want to see when we’re talking about a person seeking a lifetime appointment to a powerful branch of our government.
Well, the major concern can be in the access to care (should doctors/care providers be criminalized) or if any legal changes to how IVF procedures (including the disposal of non-viable eggs or embryos) are handled.
Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who was the first sitting Senator to give birth while in office and conceived both of her daughters via IVF, weighed in during an interview with Fox News about the extent of these reported views: “[Coney Barrett] supports groups like the St. Joseph County Right to Life, which says they support the criminalization of IVF procedures that would result in the destruction of fertilized eggs. If she takes a seat on the Supreme Court, with everything that she’s clearly done in the past, in terms of supporting groups that believe life begins at fertilization, IVF procedures are very much at risk.”
“In my case, with both of my girls, they looked at two or three fertilized eggs, not even embryos at this point, and said, you know, this one isn’t very viable,” Duckworth said. “The third discarded could result in my doctor being criminalized…If a fertilized egg in a person is a person, then that really has significant negative consequences for a family like mine that desperately wanted to have children.”
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