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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signs IVF bill giving immunity to patients, providers

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In vitro fertilization providers in Alabama are expected to resume services as soon as today.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

That is because Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill that was rushed into law after a controversial state Supreme Court ruling. It ends nearly three weeks in limbo for both IVF providers and the families they serve.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us from Montgomery, Ala. Good morning, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So you were at the Statehouse last night to watch the debate over this law. What is it intended to do?

ELLIOTT: Well, it's intended to provide criminal and civil immunity for IVF providers and the families they serve. They had been pushing for this after that ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court last month that basically gave frozen embryos the same rights as children.

What this law does not do is address the whole question of whether stored embryos should get the same kind of protections that in utero fetuses do under Alabama's strict abortion ban and the ramifications that that could then have for how doctors and families use their embryos. So what passed last night is basically a stopgap measure. It's intended to make IVF treatment available again, and the sense of urgency to get it done was underscored by the fact that the governor immediately signed it into law, despite the late hour last night.

FADEL: So basically, providers wanted to feel protected in doing these types of procedures. I mean, is this stopgap having the desired effect? What are providers saying they'll do?

ELLIOTT: It appears to. The biggest IVF provider in the state is the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a major medical center. It says it will resume treatments. Another provider, Alabama Fertility, operates in three cities. It says it welcomes the legislation and actually has patients scheduled to have embryo transfers today.

Families who were undergoing IVF had been a constant presence at the Statehouse, pressing for this. I spoke last night with Corinn O'Brien with the Fight for Alabama Families coalition. She's pregnant after having an embryo transfer in January and says these last few weeks have just been devastating for women who were left in a lurch. Now that they have scored this victory with the immunity law, they plan to use that momentum and push for a constitutional amendment to address the underlying question posed by the Supreme Court ruling.

CORINN O'BRIEN: An embryo outside of the uterus is potential life and not an unborn child or unborn life.

ELLIOTT: With that question still unsettled, a national industry group says the Alabama bill still leaves fertility doctors and their patients at risk. A statement from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine says the legislation is still a problem because there's still this sense that fertilized eggs are scientifically and legally equivalent to children.

FADEL: Is there any indication from Alabama lawmakers that they might try to address that broader issue raised by the Supreme Court ruling?

ELLIOTT: Well, everybody says they'd like to, but honestly, the path to get there is a bit murky. That's something that Republican Senator Tim Melson acknowledges. He's a physician from North Alabama and sponsored and fast-tracked this law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM MELSON: I think there's just too much difference of opinion on when actual life begins. And a lot of people say conception. A lot of people say implantation. And there's others that say heartbeat. I wish I had the answer.

ELLIOTT: Melson says the obstacle is making sure that the debate would be based on science and not gut feelings from politicians about when life begins, so certainly a very tricky issue.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.