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After Alabama's ruling, this senator's bill aims to protect national access to IVF

Senator Tammy Duckworth says she has been trying to build bipartisan support for IVF access for years.
Chip Somodevilla
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Senator Tammy Duckworth says she has been trying to build bipartisan support for IVF access for years.

Are frozen embryos objects or people? Since the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that they are unborn children, fertility clinics in the state have put in vitro fertilization — or IVF treatments — on pause.

And Democrats are using the decision to hammer Republicans on reproductive rights.

Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois has introduced a bill to protect access to IVF nationally. She is also a co-chair of the Biden-Harris reelection campaign.

She spoke with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro on Tuesday morning about her own experience with fertility treatments, her attempts to build bipartisan support for her bill, and why she thinks state Republican lawmakers in Alabama looking to pass legislation to protect IVF are just "covering their butts."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Ari Shapiro: If you don't mind beginning with your personal story, can you tell us about your own family's experience with IVF?

Tammy Duckworth: Yes, so post my wartime service in Iraq, I've struggled for about 10 years with infertility attempting to conceive. And it was only through IVF that I was able to have my two beautiful girls, Abigail and Maile Pearl. But it took 10 years for Abigail to be born, and many, many cycles of fertility treatments to get to the point where I have these gorgeous girls.

Shapiro: The Alabama Supreme Court ruling does not outlaw IVF explicitly, but the destruction of frozen embryos could be prosecuted for [wrongful death]. Now, the state attorney general put out a statement saying he does not intend to go after IVF families or providers in Alabama, but where do you think this leaves the procedure?

Duckworth: This leaves the procedure in a place where you can't actually move forward with it. You can't just rely on one attorney general who's got a limited term, right? This lays a foundation for basically outlawing anything that involves the destruction of a fertilized egg. And it's the natural progression of where we are with the fall of Roe v. Wade, and in this movement towards identifying a fertilized egg as a human being with more rights than the woman that's going to carry that fertilized egg.

I've been talking about this for years now and said, "Listen, we have a problem here." Because in my case, we fertilized five eggs, three of them were deemed non-viable, and we discarded the three non-viable because if I were to implant those, I would have had a miscarriage with all three eggs. And my doctor in 2013 said, "Tammy, with these personhood amendments, these personhood definitions that these groups are pushing for, I could be convicted of manslaughter or murder for throwing out those three non-viable eggs, and so we could no longer practice reproductive medicine."

Shapiro: As you say, you've been introducing bills like the latest one since before the Alabama Supreme Court ruling came down. Since that decision was issued, have you heard from your Republican colleagues? Have you spoken with people like Senator Susan Collins of Maine or independent Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, for example?

Duckworth: I've spoken with them on this for well over four years now. And since the Alabama Supreme Court decision, it's been crickets. I've not heard from a single Republican that I've contacted asking if they would co-sponsor this. And so, they've not come back to me since that decision.

Shapiro: Donald Trump has said he supports IVF. So has Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and other Republican leaders. And so how do you square what you're saying — that they all clearly oppose this — with the public statements they've been making?

Duckworth: They've also made public statements supporting — and taking credit, in Donald Trump's case — for the fall of Roe v. Wade. So you can't have both. It's hypocritical to say that you do both.

Duckworth says she is going to seek "unanimous consent" for her bill on Wednesday.
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Duckworth says she is going to seek "unanimous consent" for her bill on Wednesday.

Shapiro: We're having this conversation in the morning, and Alabama lawmakers could introduce legislation as soon as today to protect IVF in the state. That effort is being led by Republicans. Are you happy to see them potentially take that step?

Duckworth: No, because they're covering their butts on this. They're just trying to cover themselves. They're the ones that pass the legislation. They're the ones that put these very extreme supreme court justices on the bench that are passing these rulings. And by the way, it's not just Alabama, families all across this country are not protected in terms of their access to reproductive health care.

This is not just about one state and one Republican state politician who wants to try to cover his butt on this. This is about the fact that Republicans across the nation have for decades now worked as hard as they can to give rights to a fertilized egg that are far greater than a living, breathing human being and to take away women's access to reproductive health care.

Shapiro: I'm generalizing here, but many Republicans seem to be saying, "We can oppose abortion and support IVF." And I hear you saying, "Reproductive rights are reproductive rights and you can't pick and choose." Is it possible that that's going to get in the way of your efforts to build bipartisan support for this IVF bill that you want to see pass?

Duckworth: I've been trying to build bipartisan support for well over four years and they're not coming forward. It's not about their limiting access to abortion, it's about them defining a fertilized egg as a human being, and that is the basis on which they are limiting access to abortion.

Shapiro: In the years since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats have found that reproductive rights are consistently a winning issue whenever the question is on the ballot. As I mentioned, you're a co-chair of the Biden-Harris reelection campaign. And I know that for the personal reasons we've discussed, you object to the Alabama Supreme Court ruling. But is there also a part of you that sees it as a political gift to your party in an election year?

Duckworth: I don't think the women in Alabama who are having their access to IVF blocked see this as a political issue. They see this as a very deeply personal issue. Joe Biden has been the biggest supporter of women's right to reproductive health care. He has been consistent in terms of supporting women's right to make their own reproductive health care decisions. And so, let's make it clear what the choices are: the guy who took down Roe v. Wade, or the man who has been standing up for women's rights for decades now.

Shapiro: Have the Democratic leaders in the Senate given you any promises that your bill will be brought to a vote?

Duckworth: We're going to ask for unanimous consent tomorrow. And that is the fastest way to move forward. And all it takes is for a Republican not to show up to object. And if they truly believe it and support IVF, then they won't show up to object.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Sarah Handel