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Alabama governor signs bill protecting IVF providers from legal liability

Mar 6, 2024, 7:35 PM | Updated: 8:14 pm

Image: In this October 2018 image, containers holding frozen embryos and sperm are stored in liquid...

In this October 2018 image, containers holding frozen embryos and sperm are stored in liquid nitrogen at a fertility clinic in Fort Myers, Florida. (File photo: Lynne Sladky, AP)

(File photo: Lynne Sladky, AP)

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation into law Wednesday shielding in vitro fertilization providers from potential legal liability raised by a court ruling that equated frozen embryos to children.

The decision by the Alabama Supreme Court last month raised concerns about civil liabilities for clinics and prompted an outcry from patients and other groups. Three major IVF providers paused services.

The new law protects providers from lawsuits and criminal prosecution for the “damage or death of an embryo” during IVF services.

Republicans in the state Legislature proposed the lawsuit immunity as a way to get clinics reopened. They refused, however, to take up a bill that would address the legal status of embryos.

Original ruling: Alabama Supreme Court rules frozen embryos are ‘children’ under state law

The state’s three major IVF providers paused services after the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling last month. The decision prompted an outcry from groups across the country. Patients in Alabama also shared stories about having upcoming embryo transfers abruptly canceled and their paths to parenthood put in doubt.

“I am pleased to sign this important, short-term measure into law so that couples in Alabama hoping and praying to be parents can grow their families through IVF,” said Ivey, a Republican.

Republican Sen. Tim Melson, the bill sponsor, said he was “just elated to get these ladies back on schedule.”

Doctors from Alabama Fertility, one of the clinics that had paused IVF services, watched as the bill got final passage. They said it will allow them to resume embryo transfers “starting tomorrow.”

“We have some transfers tomorrow and some Friday. This means that we will be able to do embryo transfers and hopefully have more pregnancies and babies in the state of Alabama,” Dr. Mamie McLean said after the vote.

The state Supreme Court had ruled that three couples whose frozen embryos were destroyed in an accident at a storage facility could pursue wrongful death lawsuits for their “extrauterine children.” The ruling, treating an embryo the same as a child or gestating fetus under the wrongful death statute, raised concerns about civil liabilities for clinics.

Republicans in the GOP-dominated Alabama Legislature looked to the immunity proposal as a solution to clinics’ concerns. But they have shied away from proposals that would address the legal status of embryos created in IVF labs.

House Democrats proposed legislation last week stating that a human embryo outside a uterus cannot be considered an unborn child or human being under state law. Democrats argued that was the most direct way to deal with the issue. Republicans have not brought the proposal up for a vote.

Lawmakers pushed the immunity proposal as a way to address clinics’ immediate concerns and get them open. But they did not take up any legislation that would address the legal status of embryos.

“I think there is too much difference of opinion on when actual life begins. A lot of people say conception. A lot of people say implantation. Others say heartbeat. I wish I had the answer,” said Melson, the bill sponsor.

Melson, who is a doctor, said lawmakers may have to come back with additional legislation but said it should be based on “science not feelings.”

The court ruled that three couples whose frozen embryos were destroyed when a hospital patient got into the storage unit at a fertility clinic and dropped the embryos could pursue wrongful death lawsuits for their “extrauterine children.” The ruling, treating an embryo the same as a child or gestating fetus under the wrongful death statute, raised concerns about civil liabilities for clinics. A fourth couple filed a similar wrongful death lawsuit last week.

The court ruling recognizing embryos as children drew a backlash and patients saw appointments abruptly canceled or their paths to parenthood put in doubt.

Liz Goldman was at home giving her daughter a bottle as she watched the Senate vote on a livestream. “She didn’t understand, but it made me excited,” she said of her daughter.

Goldman, who had her daughter through IVF after a uterus transplant, hopes to become pregnant with a second child. But those plans were cast into doubt when IVF services were paused. With a complex medical history and a team of doctors involved in her care, she couldn’t just move to another state, she said.

“I’m super thankful. The past two-and-a-half weeks have been the most stressful time of my journey and I’ve been through a lot,” Goldman said.

The bill passed Wednesday says that “no action, suit, or criminal prosecution for the damage to or death of an embryo shall be brought or maintained against any individual or entity when providing or receiving services related to in vitro fertilization.”

The immunity would be retroactive but excludes pending litigation. Civil lawsuits could be pursued against manufacturers of IVF-related goods, such as the nutrient-rich solutions used to grow embryos, but damages would be capped and criminal prosecution would be forbidden.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a group representing IVF providers across the country, said the legislation does not go far enough. Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for the organization, said the legislation does not correct the fundamental problem, which he said is the court ruling “conflating fertilized eggs with children.”

House Democrats proposed legislation that would put in state law or the state Constitution that a human embryo outside a uterus cannot be considered an unborn child or human being under state law. Democrats argued that was the most direct way to deal with the issue. Republicans have not brought the proposals up for a vote.

Republicans are also trying to navigate tricky political waters — torn between widespread popularity and support for IVF — and conflicts within their own party.

Republican Sen. Larry Stutts, an obstetrician and gynecologist who cast the lone no vote in the Senate Wednesday, said the bill is an “IVF provider and supplier protection bill” and does not protect patients or their embryos.

“It is actually limiting the ability of mothers who are involved in IVF to have recourse and it is placing a dollar value on human life,” Stutts said.

State Republicans are reckoning with an IVF crisis they partly helped create with anti-abortion language added to the Alabama Constitution in 2018. The amendment, which was approved by 59% of voters, says it is state policy to recognize the “rights of unborn children.”

The phrase became the basis of the court’s ruling. At the time, supporters said it would allow the state to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned, but opponents argued it could establish “personhood” for fertilized eggs.

During debate in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, state Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa, said lawmakers were attempting to play “lawsuit whack-a-mole” instead of confronting the real issue — the implications of personhood-like language in the Alabama Constitution.

“The real solution to this is determining the definition of a child and having a real conversation about the implications of some of the decisions we’ve made,” England said.

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Alabama governor signs bill protecting IVF providers from legal liability