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University of Alabama in Birmingham pauses IVF procedures due to embryo ruling

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System said today it is pausing in vitro fertilization procedures. That is because the state Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos have the same rights as children, so destroying an embryo could have legal consequences. Following this story is WBHM managing editor Andrew Yeager. Hey there.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: Good to be here.

KELLY: Tell me more about this announcement today.

YEAGER: Yeah. Well, we should start by pointing out that UAB is a major public health care provider in Alabama. So the fact that they're pausing IVF procedures is very significant. It'll affect a lot of people. But that aside, in a statement, UAB says that they're saddened for patients who are trying to use this technology to conceive, but they have to be mindful that patients and doctors could be prosecuted or face lawsuits for what, prior to Friday, were just standard fertility procedures. Now, they emphasize that they will still do some services, such as retrieving eggs. They just won't fertilize them.

KELLY: OK. And just walk us through how we got here - how Alabama's state Supreme Court ended up ruling on this.

YEAGER: Yeah. This case stems from a Mobile fertility clinic in a hospital. A patient there somehow got into a storage area where there were frozen embryos, took them out of the freezer and dropped them. Three families whose embryos were destroyed in that incident sued under Alabama's wrongful death law. Now, a lower court said that they couldn't do that. But the Alabama Supreme Court, in an 8 to 1 ruling, said yes, they could because frozen embryos are people under state law.

The ruling used a lot of religious language. It talked about the sanctity of life. It actually referred to the frozen embryos as extrauterine children. But what it didn't do is offer any guidance or any path forward given the wide-ranging implications of this decision. It kind of kicked things over to state lawmakers to decide if they want to make any changes or clarifications to state law - for instance, who actually is covered by the state wrongful death law.

KELLY: Well, indeed. And speaking of Alabama state lawmakers, what are they saying? How are they reacting to the ruling?

YEAGER: Well, we spent today calling lawmakers and really received very little reaction. From those who did get back to us, we were told either they had no comment or that they wanted to brush up on the subject before they spoke publicly. And that really seems to point to just how sweeping and complicated the fallout from this ruling is.

Medical groups, though, have expressed concern. A statement from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine called it a, quote, "medically and scientifically unfounded decision." It goes on to say that modern fertility care would be unavailable under the ruling and that the ruling should not go unchecked.

KELLY: And what about just ordinary people? What is the conversation on this today in Alabama?

YEAGER: Yeah, it's kind of hard to tell. I would say part of that is because it's still sinking in. People are wrestling with what this may mean. But it's helpful to remember that overall, Alabama is a state that's very supportive of anti-abortion policies. In 2018, voters actually amended the state constitution to give rights to fetuses. The state bans abortion at any point in pregnancy. There is no exception for rape or incest. But how those beliefs overlap with in vitro fertilization, that really remains to be seen, especially if other clinics decide to pause fertility procedures or even shut down. There are just a lot of questions that people on multiple sides are trying to sift through and really not much clarity at the moment.

KELLY: Well, thank you today for your reporting. We're grateful.

YEAGER: Happy to do it.

KELLY: That is Andrew Yeager with WBHM in Birmingham, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrew Yeager