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As abortion opposition rallies, some activists are taking aim at in vitro fertilization, frozen embryos


Jake Patterson appears for a brief hearing in Barron County Circuit Court on Feb. 6 in Barron, Wisconsin. Patterson, 21, is accused of killing James and Denise Closs on Oct. 15 and kidnapping their daughter, Jayme Closs, from their Barron home. Tribune News Service

CHICAGO – Rosaries in hand, a small group of abortion opponents gathered outside a medical facility to pray for the unborn.

It was a familiar ritual held at an unconventional location: a fertility clinic.

An annual Bike for Life fundraiser culminated on a recent Saturday at the Naperville Fertility Center, a site where technology and science are typically heralded for enabling life where it was once deemed impossible.

Yet the crowd out front expressed concern for the fate of frozen embryos inside — particularly those that might be discarded, cryo-preserved indefinitely or donated for research — as a result of in vitro fertilization, considered the most effective form of assisted reproductive technology.

"When you do IVF, you create a life, but how many lives does it take?" said John Zabinski, founder of the bicycling event, which is organized by a local council of the Knights of Columbus. "When you get this life, what happens to the other babies?"

To Zabinski and his supporters, an embryo is just as worthy of protection as a fetus of any gestational age, based on the moral principle that life begins at conception. He lamented that some anti-abortion leaders ignore or de-emphasize potential consequences of IVF.

Numerous states have recently passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation in an attempt to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the right to terminate a pregnancy. Among the most stringent was Alabama's near-total ban on abortion, but it includes a notable exception – in vitro fertilization.

"The egg in the lab doesn't apply," Clyde Chambliss, state senator and bill sponsor, said during legislative debate. "It's not in a woman. She's not pregnant."

Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, considers opposition to IVF a fringe crusade among abortion foes. He added that fights against fertility treatments tend to be very unpopular, so those against reproductive rights are less inclined to tackle IVF because "they know they'll lose."

"Even within the anti-choice community, the sanctification of the embryo is far from the mainstream view," he said. "I find it very difficult to follow the logic of groups that purport to be for life objecting to medical facilities whose mission is to help families have babies."

But the newest generation of anti-abortion activists appears more inclined to take on the nuance of IVF.

Students for Life of America, in a July statement on the national group's website, argued that a "consistent, intellectually-honest stance holds that human life begins at conception/fertilization, which means that destroying embryos is killing human beings at our very earliest phase."

Locally, the recent Bike for Life event began with prayers at a Planned Parenthood in west suburban Aurora and ended at the downtown Naperville fertility clinic.

Dr. Randy Morris, the center's medical director, said the clinic and its staff "are committed to providing state-of-the-art medical care to women and couples suffering from infertility, recurrent miscarriage and other problems related to the reproductive system."

Under gray skies and a light drizzle, about 16 participants formed a circle along the public right-of-way outside the brick building and prayed. "May the eyes of all people be transformed, that they may see each and every human life as a reflection of the glory of God himself."

"They're equally important," Zabinski said. "No matter how microscopic and tiny they are, they are still human embryos. They are still alive, no matter how small they are.

The latest data indicate more than 620,000 embryos are cryo-preserved nationwide, though many of these will likely be used for family building, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But sometimes embryos are leftover, and they can be kept frozen for future possible use, donated to research, discarded or adopted by others struggling with infertility. An Australian company even offers a service making jewelry from the ashes of leftover embryos, to "help honour the unsung legacy of IVF," according to the business website.

There's a stark contrast in how the law treats IVF patients compared to abortion patients, said Margo Kaplan, a professor at Rutgers Law School who had children with the assistance of IVF. Afterward, she donated a remaining embryo to scientific research. She pointed out in a 2015 opinion piece that there was no waiting period, state-mandated counseling or any of the other hurdles women often face before terminating a pregnancy.

To Kaplan, these differences reveal that abortion restrictions are more concerned with "controlling women's sexuality and adhering to certain norms of sex and motherhood" than preserving life.

"IVF is different in that women are seeking to become mothers," she said in a telephone interview. "Both allow the destruction of an embryo. But only one attracts this vitriol against women who seek it."

The Washington, D.C.-based Personhood Alliance champions the rights of embryos, calling this "equal protection of all human beings," said the group's president, Gualberto Garcia Jones.

The personhood movement seeks legal rights for fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses; Jones said the cause is making a resurgence, with two-dozen state affiliate groups emerging across the country in recent years. The national organization plans to soon launch its 25th affiliate in Illinois, a state considered an abortion rights haven in the Midwest.The Illinois Reproductive Health Act, signed in June, says "a fertilized egg, embryo or fetus does not have independent rights."

"Humanity should be concerned about embryos because embryos are human too," Jones said.
Some scholars, however, caution against the personification of the embryo.

"There are many different stages of development and they are quite different from one another," said Jane Maienschein, director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University. "Those embryos in the dish are radically different than anything that comes later. ... Any embryo cannot develop on its own. It has to get nutrients and exchange waste and nutrients with something."

Less than half of all embryos in nature are estimated to survive, she said, with a high probability of not developing properly, never implanting or resulting in a miscarriage, among other difficulties.

She added that there are all sorts of problems with granting legal rights to an embryo. One example is the naturally occurring phenomenon of the chimera: There can be instances where two eggs are fertilized at the same time but one doesn't survive and is absorbed by the other.

"Did the one kill the other one? Is this embryo, is it guilty of manslaughter?" said Maienschein, author of "Embryo Under the Microscope: The Diverging Meanings of Life." "It's actually a serious question if you take seriously the claim that at the beginning you have a person.

Various court battles over embryos have emerged in recent years, as the law attempts to keep pace with advancements in technology.

An Ohio couple sued a fertility clinic after thousands of embryos were destroyed due to a storage tank malfunction last year. The lawsuit argued their frozen embryos were people and should be treated as patients, but an appellate court in May determined that an embryo was not a person because it could not survive outside the womb.

An Illinois appeals court in 2015 affirmed that a Chicago cancer survivor should get "custody" of frozen embryos over the opposition of her ex-boyfriend, in part because the fertilized eggs represented the woman's "last and only opportunity to have a biological child with her own eggs."

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