Alabama’s embryo ruling explained: is the US headed backwards?

Nearly two weeks ago, the rest of the world watched in shock as Alabama’s supreme court made the decision to consider embryos, even those kept outside the human body as children under state law. This ruling has already had major knock on effects – various IVF providers (including UAB, the largest healthcare system in the state)  have since suspended this healthcare service for fear that their methods of storing and transporting embryos could now be unlawful. The decision, according to the Medical Association of the State Alabama, ‘will likely lead to fewer babies – children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins – as fertility options become limited for those who want to have a family.’ So how exactly did the court reach a decision this momentous and what will the impacts look like in practice?

The case was initially brought about by three couples claiming wrongful death of a minor when their embryos were accidentally dropped on the floor and destroyed at a fertility treatment centre. Although a lower court had determined that frozen embryos did not qualify as a person and therefore the lawsuit should stop there, the couples brought the case to the supreme court which ruled otherwise. The ruling has raised serious concerns regarding the lack of separation of church and state in the US, as the Chief Justice Tom Parker stated to justify the decision, ‘all human beings have the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.’ Parker has long been a powerful figure in the anti-abortion and several conservative movements in the US, and many credit him with creating the scaffolding for the arguments that led to the overturning of Roe v Wade back in 2022. While up to 86% of Alabama does identify as Christian, critics point out that the First Amendment, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,’ sets out a principle which should hold for the entirety of the US – that legal decisions should not be heavily influenced by personal beliefs such as faith. 

Many have linked the ruling to the overturning of Roe v Wade in 2022, with Joe Biden calling the ruling a ‘direct result’ of this. Alabama is notorious for being pro-life, with the state having banned abortion at all stages of pregnancy. However, the ruling has even divided pro-lifers, with Donald Trump and many Republican lawmakers in Alabama supporting the protection of IVF. 

As of Thursday night, a bill has been passed intending to legally protect clinics providing IVF services after many of them suspended activities for fear of prosecution. The measure passed with strong support (the lower chamber passed it 94-6 and the senate by 34-0 with one abstention), with the governor indicating she will support it meaning that the law could be in effect by early next week. It states that, ‘no action, suit, or criminal prosecution shall be brought or maintained against any individual or entity providing goods or services related to in vitro fertilisation except for an act or omission that is both intentional and not arising from or related to IVF services.’ This at least ensures that couples can continue to access IVF for the present. Alabama House Democrats have further proposed an amendment to the state constitution which would ensure that embryos stored outside the human body are not considered human under state law, although this has resulted in fierce debate. At present, little seems certain regarding reproductive rights in many areas of the US, and the rest of the world can only watch as these life changing decisions on them are made largely by men.

Image: Cristina Glebova via Unsplash

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