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Alabama Senate bills propose legal immunity for IVF providers

Legislation at the state and federal level seeks to undo some of the impact of an Alabama State Supreme Court ruling on IVF treatments. US Senators Tammy Duckworth and Chuck Schumer intend to force a vote on federal protections for IVF this week.
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS
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Legislation at the state and federal level seeks to undo some of the impact of an Alabama State Supreme Court ruling on IVF treatments. US Senators Tammy Duckworth and Chuck Schumer intend to force a vote on federal protections for IVF this week.

The Alabama State Senate took first steps towards protecting in vitro fertilization treatments in the state with the introduction of two pieces of legislation Tuesday, which both seek immunity from civil and criminal liability for providers of in vitro fertilization goods and services.

"We're all human and accidents happen," said GOP state Sen. Tim Melson, who sponsored one of the bills.

"If somebody, God forbid, drops a test tube on the floor and that shouldn't be a negligent homicide or something," he explained, although his bill still leaves room for those charges to be filed against people who are not providing IVF services.

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Both bills now head to the Senate Healthcare Committee, meaning they will not have an immediate impact on the availability of IVF treatments, which have been on hold in Alabama since the state Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are "children".

That decision granted all embryos the right to life under the state's Constitution, and opened the door for wrongful death and other lawsuits against IVF providers and patients, causing clinics in Alabama to pause treatments and related services such as embryo shipments.

Melson, who chairs the Senate Healthcare Committee had previously said his legislation would draw a legal distinction between the "human life" of an implanted embryo and the "viable life" of an embryo outside the uterus.

Melson told NPR that he ultimately removed all viability language from his bill in order to get it passed, and expressed surprise at how big the issue had gotten.

In the Alabama State House, Democrats have been rushing through their own piece of legislation to exempt "any fertilized human egg or human embryo" that exists outside of a human body from protection under the state law and the state Constitution. But Republicans have a supermajority in Alabama, which could mean significant political headwinds for the Alabama Democrats' bill.

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Another legislative fix could be on the way from a different legislative body – the U.S. Congress. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois plans to force a vote this week on a bill she first introduced in 2022, which would protect access to IVF nationwide.

"It's not just Alabama, families all across this country are not protected in terms of their access to reproductive health care," Duckworthtold NPR's Ari Shaprio on All Things Considered.

Duckworth, who conceived her own children through in vitro fertilization, said she and her doctor could have faced criminal charges under the Alabama personhood ruling, because her treatment created three non-viable embryos.

"This is not just about one state and one Republican state politician who wants to try to cover his butt on this," Duckworth said when asked about the pending Alabama legislation. "This is about the fact that Republicans across the nation have for decades now worked as hard as they can to give rights to a fertilized egg that are far greater than a living, breathing human being and to take away women's access to reproductive health care."

As for her federal legislation, Duckworth said she hopes the outpouring of support for IVF in the days since the Alabama Supreme Court ruling will translate to success for her bill.

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"All it takes is for a Republican not to show up to object. And if they truly believe it and support IVF, then they won't show up to object."

However, Republicans are not expected to let the bill pass by unanimous consent.

South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds told reporters on Capitol Hill that he supports IVF but said he thinks Duckworth's proposal goes further than addressing only the Alabama issue.

"I think this really could be addressed with legislation at the state levels where they have this issue coming up," he said.


NPR's Sue Davis, Barbara Sprunt, Deirdre Walsh and Susanna Capelouto contributed to this story

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Liz Baker
Liz Baker is a producer on NPR's National Desk based in Los Angeles, and is often on the road producing coverage of domestic breaking news stories.
Kyle Gassiott