National News

A Growing Number of States Are Considering Fetal Personhood Legislation

Petri dishes are pictured in a laboratory. Lawmakers in more than a dozen states are considering fetal personhood legislation giving legal rights and protections to embryos and fetuses (Photo: OSV News/Cancer Research UK, Handout via Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Alabama received a lot of attention in February when the state’s top court ruled that frozen embryos were considered children under state law and people could be held liable for their destruction.

Within weeks, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation into law shielding in vitro fertilization providers from potential legal liability, approving a bill quickly passed by state lawmakers after three IVF clinics in the state had paused operations.

But Alabama is not the only state taking a closer look at when life begins and how it should be protected. At least 14 states introduced fetal personhood bills in their state legislative sessions this year. Some of these bills have already been defeated, but their existence caught the attention of those on both sides of this issue.

Prior to the 2022 Dobbs ruling, a handful of states had broad personhood laws in place. These measures were limited in scope with the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, but now those opposed to these state measures say they pose threats to fertility treatments, including IVF.

In Iowa and Florida, two states where the fetal personhood bills failed this year, the state Catholic conferences expressed their disappointment. In a March 17 newsletter, the Iowa Catholic Conference said: “Unfortunately, HF 2575, a bill defining an unborn child as a person for the purpose of the state’s criminal code other than abortion, did not make it to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s agenda last week due to concerns about IVF. “

The conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, said it did not see the measure as affecting “the legality of IVF procedures,” and added that “the Church offers pastoral care to people struggling with infertility, although IVF procedures are not supported by the Church.”

Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, told Iowa Public Radio that the bill was meant to protect “unborn human life in the criminal code in contexts other than abortion or medical procedures,” noting that it “deems an unborn baby to actually be a person when offenders attack or otherwise harm a pregnant woman.”

In Florida, a bill giving parents the right to sue for civil damages for the “wrongful death” of an unborn child was postponed after strong reaction against it.

The bill would have allowed lawsuits when a death was caused by “wrongful act, negligence, default, or breach of contract or warranty” — leading many to think this would be interpreted to include the destruction of embryos.

The state’s Republican lawmakers had proposed an amendment to the bill that would define an “unborn child” as a human “at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb,” to protect IVF patients and doctors.

The Florida Catholic Conference noted on its website that the bill was postponed and posted a link to a U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops webpage on the Church’s teaching about reproductive technology.

Fetal personhood legislation bills have also failed in Colorado and West Virginia this year.

Other states with proposed legislation about fetal protection include Kansas, Alaska, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, and South Carolina

Activists in support of these bills have said they hope the U.S. Supreme Court eventually takes up the issue of fetal personhood and determines that the 14th Amendment protects embryos and fetuses on a federal scale.

The Catholic Church, which has taught that life begins at conception, has also spoken out against IVF, particularly for the treatment of embryos.

“Donum Vitae,” a 1987 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says IVF is never acceptable because it removes conception from the marital act and it treats a baby as a product, “violating the child’s integrity as a human being with an immortal soul from the moment of conception.”