GOP faces political minefield on IVF, life at conception

June 16, 2024

In vitro fertilization (IVF) has become a political minefield for GOP Senate candidates as they seek to balance their stated support for IVF access with their beliefs that life begins at conception.  

Democrats sought to force the issue this week with a vote on legislation that would make it a right nationwide for women to access IVF. All but two Republicans voted against the motion, blocking the bill from moving forward.

At the same time, the Southern Baptists — the country’s largest denomination of Protestants largely seen as a bellwether for evangelicals — voted to oppose the use of IVF, underlining the competing pressure on Republicans. 

And it all comes as the GOP has largely been playing defense on the political field since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which led dozens of states to ban or impose severe restrictions on access to abortion. 

Protecting IVF has become a top campaign issue for Democrats after an Alabama Supreme Court ruling froze access to the treatment in the state, and the party wants to force GOP candidates across the country to answer uncomfortable questions about the full impact of fetal personhood.   

“For months now, Republicans have been running to cable news shows, telling every camera in sight that — just like their ringmaster Donald Trump — no one cares more about women more than they do … and that all they want in this scary post-Alabama ruling reality is to defend Americans’ access to IVF,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said Thursday following the Senate vote.  

“Well, that’s bulls‑‑‑.” 

In the months since the Alabama ruling, Republicans on the campaign trail have been quick to tout their support for IVF. 

“My goal is to promote a culture of life. IVF is a vital tool for families that struggle with infertility. I’m in favor of anything that promotes people having more babies & strong families,” said Bernie Moreno, a Trump-backed businessman running for Senate in Ohio against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, on social media in February.   

But Moreno, who is endorsed by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro Life America, has also repeatedly said he thinks life begins at conception.   

“Conservative Republicans should never back down from their belief that life begins at conception and that abortion is the murder of an innocent baby,” Moreno said on social media in 2022.  

In February, Moreno said during a radio interview that his Catholic faith “teaches you that life begins at conception.” 

Moreno’s campaign did not respond when asked whether he would have supported the Senate Democrats’ bill. 

In a 2022 interview with right-wing media outlet Breitbart, Pennsylvania Republican David McCormick, who was running for Senate, said he believes “life begins at conception” and that he supports “court rulings and legislation that … ultimately moves us in a direction where there isn’t abortion.”  

But now, as he mounts a second campaign, language saying “life begins at conception” is no longer on his website. 

McCormick released an op-ed in March saying he would “always support access to IVF.” 

“As a senator, I’d work to protect this important option for the millions of Americans who are relying on it to start their own beautiful families,” McCormick wrote. 

His campaign did not say whether he would have voted for the Democrats’ bill. 

The GOP response to the Alabama court ruling forced politicians to reckon with the new political reality that reproductive rights have been a winning issue for Democrats. 

Republicans who opposed abortion rights had to awkwardly explain why they disagreed with the ruling and supported IVF, even though they believe embryos are babies. 

To wrest control of the narrative, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) told candidates to express their support for IVF, oppose restrictions on the treatment and campaign on expanding access to it.  

“The attempt to moderate that some of these Republican candidates are doing, is a signal in and of itself that they know they’re on the wrong side. And thus far we have not seen people believe it,” said Democratic pollster Angela Kuefler. 

In response to the Democratic attacks, staunchly anti-abortion Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Katie Britt (Ala.) tried to pass their own bill they said was aimed at protecting IVF.  

They wanted a counter message to show they supported IVF, without voting for the Democratic bill. 

The legislation would have barred states from receiving Medicaid funding if they implemented a ban on IVF. But it wouldn’t stop a court from restricting the procedure and would have allowed states to pass laws restricting disposal, storage and implantation of embryos.  

It was blocked by Senate Democrats.

Sam Brown, a Trump-endorsed retired Army captain running for Senate in Nevada, said in a statement to The Hill he would have voted for the Cruz and Britt bill. 

“IVF and other similar fertility treatments are a blessing for so many families seeking the joys of parenthood, and we should ensure these treatments remain accessible to all,” Brown said.  

But even with their bill, Republicans have largely avoided the key question: If they believe life begins at conception, how should IVF clinics handle viable embryos that are not implanted? 

During IVF treatments, multiple eggs are often harvested, fertilized and then frozen to increase the chances of successful implementation and pregnancy. If an embryo is not viable, if genetic abnormalities are identified or if a patient does not wish to have any more children, common medical practice is to discard them. 

That practice is what’s led some on the right to question whether IVF is at odds with their anti-abortion beliefs, and part of the reason the Southern Baptists voted to oppose it.   

Yasmin Radjy, executive director of Swing Left, which supports battleground Democrats, said Republicans know they ought to show support for IVF, contraception and reproductive rights, but they’re responding to pressure from “far right interest groups” instead. 

Radjy noted that the perfect encapsulation of that contrast is Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is fighting a competitive race against former Florida Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D). 

On Thursday, Scott launched a significant ad buy touting his support for IVF and mentioning his daughter is undergoing IVF treatments.  

The ad announcement came after he voted against the Democrats’ legislation to protect IVF.