North Dakota Considers Law that May Hurt Infertile Couples

March 21st, 2011

Reproductive rights is an area I’ve touched on several times before, and I have even published an article on Huffington Post on this topic. Now, a recent AP article details yet another anti-abortion proposal that could have significant impact on the growing number of couples seeking advanced reproductive technologies (ART) as a result of fertility issues.

The article discusses an anti-abortion proposal being considered by North Dakota lawmakers asserting that a fertilized egg is a human being. Although this is an attempt to make abortion a criminal act, those quoted in the article, as well as many of us working in the infertility industry, know that a bill like this could hurt infertile couples.

If you really take a look at the IVF process, it’s not difficult to see exactly how this might impact ART and those using these technologies to build a family. Because of the extremely costly IVF process, drugs are used to stimulate a woman's ovaries to produce multiple numbers of eggs - assuring couples enough eggs to "work with". All of these eggs are fertilized in the hope that some of the resulting embryos will be healthy enough to implant into the womb of the intended mother. Next, a decision must be made as to what will be done with the fertilized eggs that are not transferred. The choices are to cryo-preserve (freeze) the fertilized eggs, donate them to science (most likely for research purposes) or discard them. This law could effectively criminalize this portion of the IVF process, threatening eventual legal action against those health care workers responsible for this part of the procedure. The IVF process would be even costlier and have a much lower success rate without this decision-making authority on the back end. And even more disturbingly, its criminalization would certainly mean the loss of practicing physicians -- many of whom have raised the bar of this specialty to a level unmatched in the world -- for fear of criminal action as a result of their participation.

Moreover, many couples who carry genetic disorders which could be passed on to their offspring utilize IVF along with pre-implantation genetic testing to select embryos unaffected with life-threatening diseases. Under this law, they might not be able to do so. It's reasonable to assume that the process of testing the fertilized eggs for genetic disorders and the subsequent decision to not use affected fertilized eggs would be outlawed. The couple would then face the painful choice between a life without children of their own or the possibility of having a baby destined for a short and painful existence, being cared for by parents who may not have the resources for a gravely ill child.

The AP story discusses how doctors recently testified to the North Dakota Senate's Judiciary Committee that this bill could affect not only couples using in vitro fertilization to try to have a baby, but also women who have complications in early pregnancy that will prevent an embryo from developing into a viable baby. Such complications include an ectopic pregnancy, a dangerous condition that happens when a fertilized egg begins growing outside the uterus.

The measure implies that a fetus, from the time of conception, could be a victim of homicide, assault or reckless endangerment. In those cases, it includes exceptions for "medical treatment for life-threatening conditions;" in vitro fertilization, in which an egg is fertilized outside the woman's body; and morning-after contraception.

Although the measure exempts in vitro fertilization from criminal penalties, it includes language saying that "causing injury to a human being" is not justified. Seems like a very slippery slope to me.

What do you think?