The IVF Battlefield

Science, technology, and life.
March 8 2009 11:22 AM

The IVF Battlefield

Thanks to the octuplets mom and legislative attempts to harness the backlash against her, a political framework for fighting about in vitro fertilization is beginning to take shape. This is a new issue for most of us. Here's an attempt to start making sense of who's proposing what.

You don't often get to see a new issue form before your eyes. It's kind of like the formation of a constellation. There's a big explosion, stuff flies in all directions, and gradually the pieces begin to align in relation to one another. That's what the biotech explosion is doing to politics right now. IVF regulation is one of the constellations taking shape. Let's take a look at who the players are and what they're after.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The initial battle that has brought them together is the fight over Georgia Senate Bill 169, which I wrote about Wednesday (" Crocktuplets "). On Thursday, the bill was sent to a subcommittee. The Associated Press says the bill is dead . The Los Angeles Times says it could survive in some form if a compromise is worked out by Monday.

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Ralph Hudgens, professes shock that it has become a flashpoint for abortion politics. "There is nothing in this law to limit abortions. I can't believe that people are reading that into it," he told the Times .

Please. We're not stupid. The bill says :

A living in vitro human embryo is a biological human being who is not the property of any person or entity. The fertility physician and the medical facility that employs the physician owe a high duty of care to the living in vitro human embryo.

And:

Nothing in this article shall be construed to affect conduct relating to abortion as provided in Chapter 12 of Title 16; provided, however, that nothing in this article shall be construed or implied to recognize any independent right to abortion under the laws of this state.

In other words, lawyers have inserted a "this doesn't affect abortion" clause so that Hudgens can claim the bill doesn't affect abortions. And we're supposed to take this seriously, even though the bill makes every embryo a human patient and stipulates that if Roe v. Wade falls, this bill can't be construed to keep abortion legal.

Did I mention that Georgia Right to Life helped Hudgens draft this supposedly abortion-neutral bill? Actually, I did . But I missed the bill's more important source: the Bioethics Defense Fund . BDF, whose self-proclaimed mission is to "address the human rights violations involved in human cloning and embryo research, abortion, and end-of-life," says two of its lawyers flat-out wrote the Georgia bill. The group adds:

BDF is grateful for the consultation and analysis provided by the National Catholic Bioethics Center , who opined that with added conscience protections and with public education on how this legislation limits violations against vulnerable human life, the Georgia bill "could be supported consistent with John Paul II's position on incremental legislation contained in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae."

A statement by Fr. Thomas Berg, L.C., Ph.D., of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person concluded that the BDF drafted bill is "an incremental approach aimed at minimizing the harm done [and] is an essential tool for undermining the greater evils in our culture."

I know these people. I spent several days with them at the Vatican four years ago. They're as pro-life as you can get. When they call the Georgia bill an "incremental" approach toward the pope's vision, I assure you that abortion is in the crosshairs.

By the way, BDF proudly quotes a supporter's description of the Georgia bill as " model language " for legislation in other states. So you can expect more Georgia-style bills elsewhere.

That's the pro-life camp. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the American Society for Reproductive Medicine . Sean Tipton, the ASRM's public affairs director, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Georgia bill "says that decisions about how to treat [infertility] patients will not be made by patients in consultation with their physicians, but by politicians." That line comes straight out of the pro-choice playbook on abortion. It's a categorical indictment of government interference. And politically, it's highly effective.

Much of the muscle against the Georgia bill seems to have come from Resolve , a group whose mission is "to ensure equal access to all family building options for men and women experiencing infertility." Resolve may be emerging as the NARAL of IVF regulation. It says its members pumped thousands of e-mails and letters into Georgia to stop the bill and helped opponents "pack" Thursday's hearing.

In addition to the pro-life and pro-choice camps, at least two hybrid positions are taking shape. One is to broadly regulate the fertility industry, preferably under federal control. This is the agenda of the Center for Genetics and Society . CGS has a complex philosophy that could roughly be described as leftist. Here's its mission statement :

The center supports benign and beneficent medical applications of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies, and opposes those applications that objectify and commodify human life and threaten to divide human society.

The Center works in a context of support for the equitable provision of health technologies domestically and internationally; for women's health and reproductive rights; for the protection of our children; for the rights of the disabled; and for precaution in the use of technologies that could alter the fundamental processes of the natural world.

Basically, CGS is a home for people who don't trust private industry and prefer to regulate it, but from the standpoint of environmentalism, equal access, and women's rights. It's for pro-choicers who are more socialist than libertarian.

CGS wants congressional hearings and federal regulation to address the octuplets case and the fertility industry's lack of oversight. Its agenda is ambitious but unclear in its details. If you have the time, check out its proposal for " Responsible Federal Oversight of the New Human Biotechnologies ."

A fourth position is to embrace government intervention but much more modestly. This is the idea behind legislation recently filed in Missouri, which would put some of the fertility industry's voluntary guidelines into law. The ASRM says self-regulation is already preventing octuplets-type abuses. But Missouri state Rep. Rob Schaaf has filed legislation to enforce these limits . Unlike the Georgia bill, Schaaf's bill is short and direct. Its operational text consists of one sentence :

When treating infertility, physicians within the state of Missouri shall not implant more embryos into a human than the current recommendations set forth by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, or its successor.

Schaaf argues that "it is within the realm of the state to make sure that doctors don't participate in things that are harmful to people." So if you don't trust complex regulatory schemes like the Georgia bill but aren't afraid of government intervention in the fertility industry per se, piecemeal measures like this one may be the way to go.

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