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Could 'personhood' bills outlaw IVF?

By Nadia Kounang, CNN
updated 5:00 PM EDT, Thu August 30, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An act in Congress says human life begins with fertilization
  • "Personhood" bills have also been attempted at the state level
  • These bills could criminalize in vitro fertilization, critics say
  • A personhood organization supports freezing and future use of embryos

(CNN) -- For the past two weeks, since Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin uttered the phrase "legitimate rape," Republicans have had to face questions about their attempts to end abortion.

But could these same attempts also outlaw in vitro fertilization?

The Republican Party's platform states: "We assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed."

Vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan was a co-sponsor last year of HR 212, the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which states that "human life shall be deemed to begin with fertilization."

Similar legislation, known as "personhood" bills, has also been attempted at the state level. According to Resolve, the national infertility association, there are efforts to get personhood ballot initiatives in at least eight states this year alone.

Seven states tried to pass bills through their state legislatures this year, but all of them died in the legislature or never passed.

Crtitics say bills like these could also criminalize in vitro fertilization. Both the American Society of Reproductive Medicine and Resolve oppose personhood legislation.

Couples compete for free IVF

"Personhood" measure stirs heated debate

"If one of these passes and a physician or lab tech drops an embryo on the floor, have they just committed homicide? Manslaughter?" asked Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.

"In a typical in vitro cycle, there's more than one embryo created," explained Dr. Daniel Shapiro, a fertility specialist with Reproductive Biology Associates. He appeared last weekend on "Sanjay Gupta, MD" to discuss the issue with CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Shapiro went on, "If you're being safe and cautious, you only put one embryo -- at most two -- back into a patient at a time. So what happens with the leftover embryos? Many of them are frozen, and many of them are never used. "

Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA, agrees that a personhood statute would change IVF. Personhood USA is a national organization supporting personhood efforts at the state and national level.

"I do believe that declaring a pre-born baby could impact IVF," Mason said.

He added, "In creating 30 to 60 embryos, and then choosing three or four embryos, that's selective reduction. I think these practices would be affected."

What happens to extra embryos after IVF?

Fertility specialists like Shapiro say they would never create 30 to 60 embryos in a cycle. A woman younger than 35, on average, generates only eight to 10 embryos a cycle, he said, and has one or two embryos transferred, while another three are usually frozen.

"Bottom line is, you're bestowing legal and constitutional rights from the time of fertilization. This law won't ban IVF, but it will ban (doctors) from doing it right," Tipton said.

Reproduction is naturally an inefficient process. "If a woman is 40 years old and she is fortunate enough (to make) 10 embryos, it is likely only zero or one of them is capable of making a baby," Shapiro said.

IVF doesn't make the process any more efficient. Physicians fear that limiting what happens to the embryos may in turn hinder how physicians work.

Specialists fear that if a bill like this becomes law, it would prompt doctors to limit the number of eggs they take from a donor, as well as the number of embryos they create.

According to Tipton, "It makes it impossible to do it in the safest and most effective manner."

Personhood USA encourages "snowflake adoption": the freezing and use of embryos for future use, by either the original parents or another family.

Currently, there is no federal legislation mandating what happens to embryos, but a personhood statute could change that.

"At one extreme, we could be accused of homicide, or negligent homicide, because we're not taking care of an embryo. At the more reasonable level, we could be considered negligent in general," Shapiro said.

Three birthdays, one day of conception

Ryan and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did not respond to request for comment on the issue.

Romney actually has a personal stake in reproductive medicine -- in the form of two grandchildren.

On May 4, his son Tagg Romney posted on Facebook, "Jen and I are happy to announce the birth of twin boys, David Mitt and William Ryder. Everyone is healthy and happy. ... A special thanks to our gestational surrogate who made this possible for us. Life is a miracle."

Gestational surrogates usually receive a couple's IVF embryos and carry the pregnancy to term.

CNN also reached out to all 54 sponsors of HR 212, the Sanctity of Human Life Act, along with the GOP Doctors' Caucus and the Congressional Pro-life Caucus, and got no response.

HR 212 has sat in the House Committee on the Judiciary since it was introduced in January 2011 and is believed to have little chance of making it out of committee.

However, as abortion and reproductive rights continue to make headlines this political season, it maybe worth considering what the outcome beyond abortion may be.

"I'm a little bit dismayed that the folks who are trying to find a wedge against Roe v. Wade are using this particular approach, because it walks right over the backs of about one in eight American couples," Shapiro said.

"That's how many people are infertile in this country. So we're not talking about a small number of people. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people who seek care in the United States for fertility concerns. And these bills interfere with their ability to get good care."

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