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Why the “fetal personality” is shaking the right

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As IVF grew in popularity, so did the concerns of its opponents. Standard practice is to create multiple embryos, which are screened for genetic abnormalities, and those that appear healthiest can be transferred. Extra embryos are often frozen; by one count alone, there are a million and a half frozen embryos in the United States. After a specified period of time, they could be donated to science or destroyed, as the Catholic Church feared.

The anti-abortion movement won a partial victory on protecting life from conception in 2001, when President George W. Bush banned the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, but President Barack Obama reversed this policy eight years later.

Starting in the late 2000s, voters rejected ballot initiatives to enshrine fetal personhood in at least five states. Voters in deep-red Mississippi appeared likely to pass a status measure in 2011. But in the weeks leading up to the election, doctors and abortion rights groups warned of the threat which weighed on IVF and birth control, and the initiative failed, 58% to 42%.

In criminal law, however, the personhood of the fetus has become entrenched. In 1986, Minnesota passed a law that, under certain circumstances, considered the death of a fetus a homicide. More than 30 states now “give full recognition to victims of unborn violence,” in the words of the National Committee for the Right to Life, by applying fetal homicide laws at any time during their in utero development. Some states have also extended child abuse laws to the fetus. Hundreds of women have been prosecuted based on these laws, often for drug use during pregnancy or, in a few cases, after a miscarriage.

Politically speaking, it is much easier to crack down on these women, who may struggle with poverty or addiction, than to target the often middle-class and wealthy couples who turn to IVF (the procedure costs between 12,000 and $30,000). IVF includes former Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian who opposes abortion. Pence and his wife, Karen, used IVF, he revealed in 2022. Fertility treatments “deserve the protection of the law,” he said then. “They gave us great comfort during these long and difficult years as we struggled with infertility in our marriage.”

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