Why ‘Fetal Personhood’ Is Roiling the Right

In vitro fertilization creates life, in the most literal sense. The procedure offers a chance to make a baby, with eggs that are fertilized and develop into embryos in a lab. I.V.F. has helped countless people have children, including couples struggling with infertility and an increasing number of L.G.B.T.Q. parents. In a sense, it’s the opposite of an abortion, which ends a pregnancy.

But in Alabama about 10 days ago, I.V.F. came to a sudden halt because of a State Supreme Court ruling that achieved a central goal of the anti-abortion movement. By a vote of 8 to 1, the court held that a fertilized egg outside the womb is a person. It said that couples could sue a hospital for the wrongful death of their embryos (which in this case were destroyed when someone dropped a frozen vial of them in a storage room) just as they could for the wrongful death of a child.

The ruling vaulted the question of “fetal personhood” to the center of the debate that has followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Until now, the post-Roe battle consisted of familiar clashes over how much to restrict access to a single procedure — abortion.

Now, the framework has shifted. The Alabama court decision made clear that this stance on the definition of life can broadly rewrite reproductive rights and send states, and perhaps the country, down unpredictable paths. In response, Alabama legislators, led by Republicans who have opposed abortion, rushed to pass bills last week so that I.V.F. can resume.

Recognition of fetal personhood from the moment of conception has been a longstanding aim of leading conservative theorists. “The Alabama ruling gave the pro-life movement the closest thing in 50 years to what it has been striving for,” said Daniel K. Williams, a historian at Ashland University in Ohio who has written three books about evangelical activism. “The pro-life movement was never just about banning abortion. It was about codifying legal protections for human life at every stage. That is what Dobbs” — the 2022 decision overturning Roe — “did not do. Now they have that in Alabama.”

Supporters of in vitro fertilization protested the Alabama Supreme Court ruling at the State House on Wednesday.Credit…Charity Rachelle for The New York Times
Back to top button