OPINION: Why a Republican Speaker took a last-minute stand for IVF

The in vitro fertilization process. California does not require that insurance companies cover IVF, which leaves many residents struggling to pay. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The in vitro fertilization process. California does not require that insurance companies cover IVF, which leaves many residents struggling to pay. (Dreamstime/TNS)

As a 71-year-old, white-haired Republican from South Georgia, House Speaker Jon Burns is not necessarily the person you’d expect to take the lead on a measure supporting access to in-vitro fertilization in the state.

But that’s what Burns did on the 40th and final day of the legislative session last week, when he reached out to state Reps. Scott Hilton, a Republican from Peachtree Corners, and state Rep. Teri Anulewitz, a Smyrna Democrat, asking them to introduce a resolution that declared there “should be no question that in-vitro fertilization will remain available in the State of Georgia.”

The measure adopted by the House was symbolic. It did not give any new legal protections to current IVF procedures in Georgia. But it did put Burns and the entire state House, Democrats and Republicans, on the same page as about 90% of the American voters who say IVF procedures should remain legal, even after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“I know, and I’m sure you know, many people, whether they be family members, friends or just acquaintances, that have had difficulties on the journey of pregnancy,” Burns said Tuesday. For those families, Burns said IVF “has been a life saving, life changing process.”

“We just wanted to show that we were unequivocally in support of the process here in Georgia,” he said. “Certainly that’s something we’ll stand behind in the future.”

Burns doesn’t just know people who have used IVF to start families, he also knows — and is responsible for — Republicans’ House majority, which includes a swath of Republicans in suburban districts in north Fulton County, like state Rep. Deborah Silcox and Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, and Gwinnett County, like state Rep. Matt Reeves and Majority Leader Chuck Efstration.

Those are the counties where suburban moms are just as likely to hold PhDs and law degrees as be driving their kids to soccer practice and Little League. To those voters, using IVF to start or expand a family shouldn’t even be up for discussion.

Questions about the future of the procedure have come up since the Alabama Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that embryos at any stage, including those used in IVF, are legally children. Because IVF involves testing, storing and sometimes discarding embryos deemed unhealthy or not wanted, the decision meant that IVF providers could suddenly be liable for manslaughter or murder for following elements of current IVF protocols.

The Alabama Legislature quickly drafted and passed a bill that most IVF providers said would let them resume operations. But the event served as a warning in other states with personhood laws, including Georgia, that IVF could be limited by courts or lawmakers in the future.

Scott Hilton said that after the Alabama ruling, “I know many of my constituents were concerned about something similar happening here.” He wanted to make it “abundantly clear” where the Legislature stood on the issue.

Georgia’s six-week abortion ban currently applies only to embryos in a uterus. But the widely held belief among conservative Christians that life begins at conception means that Georgia’s personhood bill falls short of that definition and that IVF, in its current form, does too.

Cole Muzio, the executive director of the influential Frontline Policy Action, told me there’s no effort from his group to limit IVF procedures right now. But, he added, the future of IVF is “a conversation worth having.”

“There are unethical practices that often accompany IVF when you’re discarding embryos and how you’re treating the concept of life,” he said. “At the same time, IVF is a valuable resource for parents that want to have children and can’t otherwise. And so I think that there needs to be reforms to IVF as we go, but that’s not really on the legislative or policy table right now.”

There’s no way to overstate how influential Frontline and other Christian conservative groups are in the Georgia state Capitol. They were at the front of the push for the state’s six-week abortion ban and the personhood language it contains in 2019. Frontline doesn’t get everything it wants each year, but it does get Republicans’ attention, always. Using terms like “unethical” and “reforms” to discuss IVF means an eventual clash over the details of the issue seems all but inevitable. And the details matter.

Anulewicz, the Democrat who co-sponsored Burns’ IVF resolution, had earlier introduced a bill to add legal protections for the process. She said she read the Burns bill five times to make sure it was a legitimate effort to put the House on the record supporting IVF and decided that it was.

“I think it’s important that this be a bipartisan resolution as it is beyond clear that support for in vitro fertilization is bipartisan,” she said.

And therein lies Republicans’ IVF problem — not that conservative activists have objections to parts of IVF, but that most Republican women do not. The same goes for independent women and Democratic women. In fact, using IVF to have a baby has nothing to do with a person’s political affiliation and everything to do with whatever is standing in the way of getting pregnant, whether it’s illness, military deployment, or simply years of trying. Getting past the Georgia General Assembly is not one of the hurdles to overcome right now.

The Georgia House Speaker has taken the step to say IVF should remain accessible. The lieutenant governor has said he supports IVF, too, although the state Senate did not address the issue this session.

But just as you can’t be half pregnant, it’s really not possible for a Legislature to be half-in on an issue like IVF. Lawmakers will need to decide if they’ll take steps to protect it in the future or not. The difference will affect all Georgia families, regardless of their politics.