Florida ‘unborn child’ bill stalls amid concerns over IVF and abortion policies

Lauren Mascarenhas, CNN | 2/27/2024, 10:33 a.m.
Fallout continues from the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that frozen embryos are children, an unprecedented decision that has already prompted …
More employers are covering in vitro fertilization treatments. Mandatory Credit: abezikus/iStockphoto/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

Fallout continues from the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that frozen embryos are children, an unprecedented decision that has already prompted clinics in the state to halt some IVF treatments.

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Alabama IVF Controversy

The impact of Alabama's unprecedented court ruling, that frozen embryos are children, is becoming a new flashpoint in the 2024 presidential race. Isabel Rosales reports. Source: CNN

Here are the latest developments:

A proposed bill in Florida that would define a fetus as an “unborn child” and expand liability for wrongful death lawsuits for unborn children has stalled indefinitely in the wake of the Alabama ruling, which said those who destroy frozen embryos can be held liable for wrongful death.

The bill was scheduled for a vote Monday in the Florida Senate Rules Committee, but its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Erin Grall, requested the vote be postponed, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The measure seeks to revise language for civil lawsuits and allow “parents of an unborn child to recover certain damages” in cases of a “negligent” death, the bill reads.

But critics say it is written too broadly and could lead to civil lawsuits against health care providers and others.

“As the bill is currently written, nothing is preventing an abusive partner or rapist from bringing a lawsuit for damages against a healthcare provider or friends and family members of the individual who had an abortion,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel of the ACLU of Florida.

CNN has reached out to Grall’s office for comment. Prior to postponing the bill, Grall filed an amendment to exclude any legal abortion from civil liability under the bill.

The current session of the state Senate’s Rules Committee ends March 8, according to the Senate calendar. Grall told the Tampa Bay Times she’s unsure of the bill’s future in the current session.

HHS secretary to meet with families impacted by the Alabama ruling

US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is in Birmingham Tuesday to meet with patients and health care workers directly impacted by the IVF ruling.

He noted the confusion caused by the ruling is a consequence of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned the federal right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade.

“If you’re looking to have a family, all of a sudden, you’re told that you could face prosecution,” Becerra told CNN’s John Berman Tuesday morning of families in Alabama. “Certainly, you’re facing confusion as to whether or not you can continue with your in vitro fertilization. And what are the consequences for you if they’re not successful, if you have embryos that you don’t use? It’s just a situation that would not have existed if Roe vs. Wade continued to be the law of the land.”

Becerra noted on the federal level, House Republicans have supported The Life at Conception Act, proposed legislation that would define the term “human being” to include “all stages of life, including the moment of conception.” The bill doesn’t have carveout for IVF.

“What we have to do is go in the opposite direction and reestablish the protections that we had under Roe v. Wade, because it’s clear: It’s not just protections for abortion, it’s protection for health care for families that are in their reproductive stage of life,” Becerra said.

On the state level, Becerra said he hoped the pause on the legislation in Florida isn’t a political move. “I hope the pause is real. … I hope the pause is making people understand the consequences of depriving families, women, of their rights during reproductive years,” he told CNN.

Texas governor supports IVF, stops short of calling for law to protect access in the state The turmoil caused by the Alabama Supreme Court decision has left some families fleeing to other locations where access to IVF services remains in place.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott voiced support for IVF – though he stopped short of calling for a law to protect access in Texas.

“We want to make it easier for people to be able to have babies, not … make it harder,” Abbott told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday. “The IVF process is a way of giving life to even more babies.”

When asked whether he planned to urge the Texas legislature to create laws to keep IVF legal, Abbott said he thought Texas would eventually address the issue, noting that he wants to keep Texas a “pro-life state.”

‘I am one of the lucky ones’

Alabama resident Gabby Goidel and her husband rushed to Texas after learning her fertility clinic in Alabama was halting IVF services days before her scheduled egg retrieval.

Goidel and her husband were able to find a clinic in Texas that allowed her to continue treatment.

“I am one of the lucky ones who was able to finish this off,” Goidel said in an interview with CNN Sunday.

Goidel decided to pursue IVF after she experienced three miscarriages in less than nine months, and she says the state Supreme Court ruling has added an additional layer of stress to a preparation process that’s felt like training for a marathon.

“I have to go into doctor’s appointments to be monitored every other day, I have shots that I have to take at a very specific time every night, and any delay in taking the medications, any delay in the appointments could disrupt the whole cycle,” she said. “I was taking shots in an airport bathroom because of how sensitive the procedure and how sensitive time is.”

Goidel urged those working to protect or restore IVF access in the state to remember that time is critical.

“I think a lot of people hear that embryos are going to be protected in Alabama and they rejoice in that, but instead it means that embryos aren’t being created in Alabama. It stopped that completely. It stopped the potential of millions of future babies in Alabama,” she said.

How we got here

The Alabama ruling stems from two lawsuits filed by three sets of parents who underwent IVF procedures to have babies and then opted to have the remaining embryos frozen.

The court said embryos – whether they’re within or out of a uterus – are children and would be protected under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act.

The court in its majority opinion nodded to a 2018 amendment to the Alabama constitution, which provides protections for “the rights of the unborn child,” including the right to life.

The Medical Association of the State of Alabama, which weighed in before the court’s decision, warned the ruling would create an “enormous potential for civil liability” for fertility specialists, because embryos can be damaged or become unsuitable for pregnancy at any time during an IVF process, including when they are being thawed.

Since the ruling, at least three least three fertility treatment facilities in Alabama have halted certain IVF treatment programs amid concerns their medical personnel could be at legal risk, including the state’s largest health care system, the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“We are saddened that this will impact our patients’ attempt to have a baby through IVF, but we must evaluate the potential that our patients and our physicians could be prosecuted criminally or face punitive damages for following the standard of care for IVF treatments,” Hannah Echols, a University of Alabama spokesperson, told CNN in a statement.

Though Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has indicated his office does not intend to use the state court’s decision as a basis to prosecute families or IVF providers, at least one lawmaker has expressed concern that other law enforcement officials could.

Democratic Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels introduced a bill last week that would establish that fertilized human eggs stored outside a uterus are not considered human beings under state law. Republican state Senators are expected to file similar legislation, a source told CNN, but the timing is not clear.