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How Republicans are talking about IVF

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Alabama passed legislation last week to protect in-vitro fertilization providers from legal liability, but it doesn't address the larger questions posed by last month's state Supreme Court ruling, which said frozen embryos qualify as children under Alabama law. Now, Republicans in Congress are grappling with those questions. NPR's Lexie Schapitl reports.

LEXIE SCHAPITL, BYLINE: In the days after the Alabama court ruling came down, congressional Republicans wanted to make one thing clear - that they supported IVF.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MATT GAETZ: Pro-life means being pro-IVF...

BYRON DONALDS: But do I support the IVF procedure 100%? I do.

NANCY MACE: Protect women's access to IVF should be a priority for us.

SCHAPITL: That was Matt Gaetz and Byron Donalds of Florida and South Carolina's Nancy Mace. Alabama Senator Katie Britt made the same point in her Republican response to President Biden's State of the Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE BRITT: It's why we strongly support continued nationwide access to in-vitro fertilization.

SCHAPITL: But many Republicans have spent years arguing that life begins at conception, the same basic premise that upheld the Alabama decision. Since the Alabama ruling, Republicans have struggled to articulate what distinguishes their views from the courts. Kansas Senator Roger Marshall is a practicing obstetrician.

ROGER MARSHALL: And I welcome every day 200 babies that are born because of in-vitro fertilization in this country. There's nothing more pro-family than supporting the birth of babies.

SCHAPITL: He's also one of the senators who co-sponsored the Life at Conception Act, a bill that would have granted constitutional protection to embryos at, quote, "the moment of fertilization" - without any carve-outs for IVF. I asked him if he saw any tension between that idea and IVF treatments, during which embryos are often discarded or stored for years.

MARSHALL: I've wrestled with this for over 25 years as a practicing obstetrician. And when I talk to the spiritual experts, they can't agree on this particular issue.

SCHAPITL: That bill had more than 160 Republican co-sponsors in the House before the Supreme Court struck down the right to an abortion. Republican Congressman Don bacon was one of those early co-sponsors, but he didn't sign on last year over concerns about IVF access. Here's how he explained his stance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON BACON: I just think in principle, on a normal pregnancy, we want to respect that that is a - it's human. It's alive. I think it's different when you have an, you know, the, you know, the embryo outside of the body. (Inaudible) it's different. I want to help mom and dads become mom and dads. That's my goal.

SCHAPITL: Congresswoman Michelle Steel faced criticism for signing on to the act, since she's had children through IVF and has voiced support for the treatment. She's the first lawmaker to take her name off the bill since Alabama's court ruling, citing, quote, "confusion about where she stands."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHELLE STEEL: Nothing is more pro-life than helping families with children, and I do not support federal restrictions on IVF.

SCHAPITL: Florida Senator Marco Rubio acknowledged the tension facing conservatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: The ethical dilemma that this poses is in order to create life, you have to destroy life because you'll create embryos that are not going to be used. And it's a very difficult bioethical issue. And it's one that the practitioners themselves confront. And look. That's what makes it complex. And it's a balancing act that as a society we're going to have to make.

SCHAPITL: Emma Waters works on issues of life, religion and bioethics for the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. She said providing IVF in a pro-life way means not destroying embryos for any reason. She suggested the U.S. could adopt policies limiting the number of embryos created during treatment or requiring that all embryos get implanted.

EMMA WATERS: I think a lot of Republican lawmakers in particular feel like they're forced into this strict binary where either they have to say, I'm fully in support of IVF, no limitations, no regulation, just, like, I'm in support, go for it, or they're going to be painted as being totally in opposition to IVF and not caring about women, not caring about children.

SCHAPITL: Democrats say there is a binary - that they want to pass a law to protect IVF and Republicans don't. And Democrats think it's a winning message. Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin is running for Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELISSA SLOTKIN: You know, I'm running against someone who came out loud and proud, I support IVF, except he co-led four bills that would do the exact same thing as the Alabama ruling. It's not what these guys say. It's what they do. Hold them to account. We have the receipts.

SCHAPITL: So while Alabama has addressed the issue there, for now, it's likely to stick around on the campaign trail. Lexie Schapitl, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lexie Schapitl
Lexie Schapitl is an assistant producer with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces, the NPR Politics Podcast, and digital content. She also reports from the field and helps run the NPR Politics social media channels.