US hospital pauses IVF treatment after ruling claims frozen embryos are children

It comes after the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court nodded to the rights of an unborn child, in or outside the womb.

Alabama’s largest hospital has paused in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments in the wake of a court ruling that claimed frozen embryos are legally children.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham health system said in a statement it must now evaluate whether its patients or doctors could face criminal charges or punitive damages for undergoing IVF treatments.

“We are saddened that this will impact our patients’ attempt to have a baby through IVF,” the statement read.

Doctors and patients have been grappling with a ruling by the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court that questioned the rights of an embryo.

On Friday, it ruled the state recognises the “rights of the unborn child” and said three couples could sue for wrongful death when their frozen embryos were destroyed in a accident at a storage facility.

While the court case centred on whether embryos were covered under the wrongful death of a minor statute, some said treating the embryo as a child, rather than property, could have broader implications and call into question many of the practices of IVF.

“Unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics,” Justice Jay Mitchell wrote of the case.

“Disbelief, denial, all the stages of grief. … I was stunned,” said Dr Michael Allemand, a reproductive endocrinologist at Alabama Fertility, which provides IVF services.

Allemand said they are having daily discussions about how to proceed.

He said IVF is often the best treatment for patients who desperately want a child, and the ruling threatens doctors’ ability to provide that care.

“The moments that our patients are wanting to have by growing their families – Christmas mornings with grandparents, kindergarten, going in the first day of school, with little back-backs – all that stuff is what this is about. Those are the real moments that this ruling could deprive patients of,” he said.

The Alabama Supreme Court decision partly hinged on anti-abortion language added to the Alabama Constitution by voters in 2018, stating it is the “policy of this state to ensure the protection of the rights of the unborn child.”

Eric Johnston, an anti-abortion activist and lawyer who helped draft the constitutional language, said the “purpose of that was more related to abortion.”

He said it was intended to clarify that the Alabama Constitution does not protect the right to abortion and eventually laid the groundwork for Alabama to ban abortions when states regained control of abortion access.

However, opponents of the constitutional amendment warned in 2018 that it was essentially a personhood measure that could give rights to fertilised eggs.

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