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They're coming for contraception. They're coming for IVF.
The anti-abortion movement isn't slowing down. They're coming for you.
The anti-abortion movement has had a banner year. After a decades-long takeover of the Republican Party and demands to appoint far-right anti-abortion judges to the bench, the Supreme Court finally fully stripped abortion rights from American women this past June. In preparation for that moment, the anti-abortion movement had spent years pushing and passing trigger laws in various state, which went into effect the moment Roe v. Wade was overturned and abortion was criminalized. These laws often with virtually no exceptions, for even the most extreme circumstances. The people who wrote these laws are not doctors, and already, a number of women have almost died because of the “pro-life” movement’s total disregard for women’s lives. The public is outraged, and just delivered Democrats unexpected midterm wins because of abortion. Everywhere abortion rights have been on the ballot, abortion rights have won.
The anti-abortion movement, though, has not been brought to heel. Instead, it is more emboldened and aggressive than ever. And its leaders are clear about what they believe the future holds: A public that grows acclimated to extreme abortion restrictions, and laws that will limit IVF and contraception.
The leaders of the anti-abortion movement are saying as much on private phone calls with Republican politicians.
When it comes to IVF and contraception, "I don’t think that that’s the conversation that you need to have now,” one anti-abortion leader told Tennessee Republicans on a private call. Instead, he offered, “Maybe your caucus gets to a point next year, two years from now, three years from now, where you do want to talk about IVF, and how to regulate it in a more ethical way, or deal with some of those contraceptive issues.”
This is something fertility doctors and patients have been worried about ever since Roe was overturned, and rightly. As I wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this year, the gold standard in “pro-life” lawmaking is stating that life begins at conception — that is, before a pregnancy is even established — and criminalizing any act that kills (or, in come cases, could kill) a fertilized egg. In IVF, it’s fairly standard to discard fertilized eggs that aren’t healthy and would never become healthy pregnancies (naturally, roughly half of fertilized eggs don’t implant and are flushed out of the body, an extraordinary “death rate” if the pro-life definition is applied). Under pro-life laws that define life as beginning at the moment of fertilization, this would be murder.
As it stands, conservative states generally skirt this issue by including language that the fertilized egg must be inside of the uterus, or inside of a woman’s body — language that’s only in there to protect IVF. As one Alabama senator put it, the “pro-life” movement isn’t seeking to regulate IVF at the moment because regulating IVF doesn’t let them totally control women’s bodies: “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply,
he said. “It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.”
I imagine that IVF will indeed be divisive even within the anti-abortion movement. Pro-life women and men make use of fertility treatments, including IVF. And the stakes of having a baby can feel much higher in conservative communities where a woman’s worth is at least partly tied to maternal status. At the same time, the anti-abortion movement has defined “life” and “murder” in such an insane way that many standard IVF procedures fall into the category of acts that they consider life-ending. And make no mistake: Leaders of anti-abortion organizations are either opposed to IVF, or silent about it — perhaps biding their time.
That’s why this latest recorded phone call is so important: It makes clear that there is a longer-term strategy here. The pro-life movement knows that banning IVF and many popular and highly-effective forms contraception would be wildly unpopular, enough to create huge political backlash even on the right. So they’re using the same strategy they used for abortion rights: Take the question out of the hands of individuals, and even out of the hands of voters; chip away at rights at a steady clip to acclimate the public to the very idea that these rights are up for debate; install members of a reactionary minority into positions of power and have them rule over all of us.
There is not a single major pro-life organization in the United States that openly supports contraception use and access. There is not a single major pro-life organization in the United States that openly supports IVF as it is routinely practiced.
When members of these organizations believe no one is paying attention, they’re more straightforward: They want IVF radically restricted. They want many forms of contraception banned. And they are writing anti-abortion laws specifically for that purpose. They are priming the public with flatly false claims — that emergency contraception is abortion (it’s not, it’s contraception); that the IUD is an abortifacient (it’s not, it’s contraception). And they’ve already collected a series of wins, including one in the Supreme Court that essentially allows anti-abortion extremists to define what they believe to be abortion, no matter what the science says.
These are the same folks who have largely stripped exceptions for rape, incest, fetal anomaly, and the health of the pregnant woman from anti-abortion laws, and who have defined “life of the pregnant woman” exceptions so narrowly that women are nearly bleeding to death and going into septic shock before doctors will treat them — and doctors are calling lawyers before making emergency decisions in the treatment room.
The anti-abortion movement has written abortion criminalization laws in such a way that “life of the pregnant woman” isn’t even an exception; it’s an affirmative defense. That is: A doctor who performs an abortion and is criminally tried shoulders the burden of proof to demonstrate that they needed to perform the procedure to save the woman’s life. Any abortion is subject to investigation by the state and potential prosecution. And while a doctor can argue in court that they needed to perform the abortion to save the life of the pregnant woman, the anti-abortion movement that wrote these exceptions also widely claims that abortions are never needed to save the lives of pregnant woman.
You see where this is going, yes?
We are hurtling toward a moment when doctors will be put on trial for saving women’s lives, and they will need to prove that what they did was absolutely necessary and that the woman would have died without it — not always an easy counterfactual in the world of medicine, where so many factors are at play, and certainly not easy in the face of an entire movement dedicated to lying about women’s health in order to achieve its political aims. And we are seeing an anti-abortion movement set on restricting both fertility treatments and contraception — the leaders of this movement are just waiting for us to get used to our new, misogynist normal, so they can expand their reach even more.