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Amy Coney Barrett and the antiabortion movement’s shifting lines in the sand

If ‘life begins at conception,’ how have abortion opponents made peace with in vitro fertilization?

Senator Richard Blumenthal asked Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday about a statement from an antiabortion group that she signed in 2006. The group's opposition to in vitro fertilization was once a more common stance in the antiabortion movement.
Senator Richard Blumenthal asked Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday about a statement from an antiabortion group that she signed in 2006. The group's opposition to in vitro fertilization was once a more common stance in the antiabortion movement.Jim Lo Scalzo/Associated Press

On the morning of July 27, 1978, newspaper readers across the UK stumbled to their stoops, robe-clad and clutching their first cups of tea. Whatever newspaper they subscribed to, their bleary eyes likely met the glassy, slightly unfocused stare of Louise Joy Brown, lips adorably pursed and peering out from a blanket. “And here she is …” the London Daily Mail announced in two-inch letters: “THE LOVELY LOUISE.” “SUPERBABE,” the Evening News of London wrote that evening. Brown was two days old and utterly perfect: 10 fingers, 10 toes, chubby cheeks and dark hair, and a wail that came from two powerful tiny lungs. The first baby conceived through in vitro fertilization was five pounds, 12 ounces of totally normal human, having been delivered by planned caesarean section at the Oldham General Hospital in Lancashire, England.

But as headlines greeted the news with enthusiasm and the hopes of women and couples unable to have children on their own soared, many in the United States greeted Brown’s birth with dismay. In vitro is Latin for “in glass,” a sci-fi update to the in vivo (“in the body”) fertilization that produced every other human who had ever walked the earth. The Vatican had denounced efforts to develop IVF technology back in 1963, when an Italian researcher claimed he had been able to keep an embryo alive in a dish for 29 days. It was “sacrilegious,” the official Vatican newspaper said. “Monstrous.” As the technology continued to develop in the 1970s, it also dawned on the growing American antiabortion lobby that the use of IVF would involve discarding or destroying embryos on a regular basis. Today, unused embryos from IVF — embryos that show a chromosomal abnormality, perhaps, or ones left over after a couple finishes building their family — are thawed and discarded by clinics, donated to scientific research, or, rarely, put through a “compassionate transfer,” transferred to the woman’s uterus at a time in her cycle when pregnancy is unlikely and the embryo can be absorbed by her body.

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“Persons who believe that an individual human life begins with conception,” the Princeton medical ethicist Paul Ramsey wrote in 1971, “must regard experiments in in vitro fertilization as ab initio inherently immoral.”

It’s not clear the Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett would disagree. At her nomination hearings this week in the Senate, she was asked about a two-page advertisement placed in the South Bend Tribune in 2006 by the antiabortion group St. Joseph County Right to Life. “We … oppose abortion on demand and defend the right to life from fertilization to natural death.” Barrett’s name was listed below, above her husband’s. “Life from fertilization” is a subtle step away from “life begins at conception,” but the implications are huge. “We would be supportive,” St. Joseph Right to Life executive director Jackie Appleman told the Guardian in an article published Oct. 1, “of criminalizing the discarding of frozen embryos or selective reduction through the IVF process.” Appleman added that she saw little distinction between discarding embryos during IVF and an abortion. Though Barrett declined to comment on it in the Senate this week, this position on IVF is outside the mainstream of the antiabortion movement.

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That wasn’t always the case. For a not-so-brief moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, IVF was at least as controversial as abortion, if not even more so.

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But then, in the years and decades after Brown’s birth, positions on abortion and IVF diverged radically. For women and couples suffering from infertility across the political and religious spectrum, this is entirely understandable. Some saw in vitro fertilization as nothing short of a miracle: the realization of their most fervent hopes and prayers. Nevertheless, for a political movement based on the idea that “life begins at conception,” the willingness to make peace with in vitro fertilization, at least partly for the sake of political expediency, reveals that the antiabortion movement’s goals ultimately have less to do with embryos and far more with women’s roles in society.

The paradox of Roe

Opposition to abortion was widespread across the country in the 19th century and into the 20th, but it was women’s sexual behavior, not fetal rights, that generated opponents’ ire. American colonists had brought with them centuries of legal and cultural precedent from largely Protestant parts of Europe, which saw little issue with abortion up to quickening, the moment at which a pregnant woman first feels the fetus move. In an era before sonograms and ultrasounds opened a uterus’s contents for public view, such a stance made practical sense: Before quickening, no one could tell if her missed periods, nausea, and increasing roundness were actually symptoms of pregnancy, and not simply a result of something more mundane — like “flatulence in the bowels,” as one witness put it at the 1848 murder trial of the New York City abortionist Madame Restell.

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However, moral reformers of the 19th century lumped abortion in with contraception, seeing them as two sides of the same sexually enabling coin. Without fear of pregnancy serving as a deterrent, reformers worried, how could men trust their wives’, daughters’, and sisters’ sexual behavior? Newspapers across the country portrayed abortion as a dangerous, immoral activity, sought out by loose women and performed by ethically questionable doctors who would help them hide their sins. The state of Connecticut was the first to outlaw abortion, in 1821. New York state followed suit eight years later. By 1900, abortion after quickening was a felony in every state except Kentucky, which added a statute barring the procedure in 1910.

Dr. Robert Edwards, left, held Louise Joy Brown, the first baby born through in vitro fertilization, in 1978.
Dr. Robert Edwards, left, held Louise Joy Brown, the first baby born through in vitro fertilization, in 1978.Keystone

The idea that “life begins at conception,” not at quickening, birth, or some point in between, was long limited to Catholic circles. Catholic theologians piloted the notion in the 17th century by drawing on a second-century Christian text that referred to pregnancy termination as “murder.” The idea gained traction among Catholic thinkers for two centuries, until in 1869 Pope Pius IX made it official: In keeping with the second-century text, abortion at any stage of pregnancy, even to save the mother’s life, was murder, an unforgivable sin. Nearly a century later, in 1966, a Catholic cardinal from California founded the Right to Life League, giving the modern antiabortion movement its branding, and its focus. By 1970, adherents had developed a shorthand for “right to life”: The “pro-life” movement was born.

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But well into the 1960s, even evangelical Protestants questioned their Catholic counterparts, pointing out that there was no clear support in the Bible for the personhood of a fetus, much less an embryo. At the Protestant Symposium on Human Reproduction in 1968, 25 theologians debated the proper stance on abortion for American evangelicals. The best they could come up with: A human fetus was “an actual human life or at the least, a potential and developing human life,” and doctors should “exercise great caution” before recommending or performing an abortion. In a press conference in 1967, newly elected California Governor Ronald Reagan argued that according to the principle of self-defense, a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy that threatened her mental or physical health. A 1970 study conducted by the Baptist Sunday School Board found that 70 percent of Southern Baptist pastors were in favor of abortions that would protect the health of the mother, and that more than two-thirds favored abortion if the fetus had grave medical problems. In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention resolved to work for legislation that made abortions more accessible to women who needed them, not less.

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion, was a shocking loss for the right to life movement. Yet, historians have argued, it was Roe that, paradoxically, infused American antiabortion politics with energy and passion. And it was the shock of Roe that finally, decisively, brought Protestants into the fold. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement sparked a reckoning for many younger, mainline Protestant clergy members, who came to see fetal life as a human rights issue that aligned with their newfound social consciousness. And as Catholic right-to-lifers became increasingly willing to drop the anti-contraception part of their platforms, they nudged the door open for Protestants to join in support. The American “pro-life” movement grew substantially in the years following Roe, transforming from a tentative alliance between Catholics and the odd Protestant ethicist like Ramsey into a well-oiled, powerful network: the National Right to Life Committee, Americans United for Life, the Pro-Life Action League.

Diverging roads

The newly inspired pro-life machinery took aim at IVF, hoping to stall it in the research phase and prevent it from entering the medical mainstream. Under lobbying pressure, 25 states quickly passed laws barring any research on fetuses — and, in many of them, expanding the legal definition of “fetus” to include the zygote, blastocyst, embryonic, and fetal stages of development. (Scientifically speaking, a fertilized human egg becomes a fetus after eight weeks of gestation.) By the middle of the 1970s, pressure from antiabortion groups succeeded in shutting down all embryonic research in the United States. IVF research moved overseas, with British, Australian, and French teams of scientists racing to bring the first “test tube baby” to life.

But as news of Brown’s birth ricocheted around the world, it blew the lid off American resistance to IVF. The following Sunday, the New York Daily News hosted a debate between Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish theologians about the ethics of IVF. The priest, predictably, decried IVF’s separation of “the two aspects of sexuality, the love and the procreative.” The Protestant minister, though, was far more willing to bend. “I think, in this case,” he conceded, “what science has done is good because it enhances life, enabling an infertile couple to procreate.” The rabbi agreed wholeheartedly. Why must only things deemed “natural” be considered ethical, he asked. “Marriage, for example, is not a natural act. Animals don’t get married. So humans have already improved on nature. In this case, we are improving upon nature to help carry out the religious value of having children.”

The “religious value of having children” quickly won out over religious concerns about when life begins. Within a year, the National Ethics Advisory Board lifted a three-year moratorium on research on embryos. Today, antiabortion groups pay cautious lip service to IVF in hard-to-find corners of their websites: “There is controversy in the pro-life community on the ethics of In-Vitro Fertilization,” Louisiana Right to Life writes, blandly. “From a pro-life viewpoint,” Massachusetts Citizens for Life instructs, almost apologetically, “IVF is not permissible given a proper respect for human life.” “Sadly,” offers Illinois Right to Life, “IVF technology directly and continuously initiates the destruction of human beings.” The halfhearted condemnation is particularly notable in contrast to the fire and brimstone language antiabortion groups are wont to use about abortion, such as “genocide” and “murder.” The disparity is reflected in popular opinion: In 2013, nearly half of Americans said they believed abortion to be morally wrong. Only 12 percent believed the same of IVF. Hardly anyone is picketing fertility clinics.

The passion abortion inspires, on both sides of the issue, has never been satisfactorily explained by the technical, philosophical, or religious question of whether or not a fertilized egg is a human. Abortion cuts to a far deeper, more intimate place, where women’s roles in society and in families and their very identity are up for grabs. One’s stance on abortion is a litmus test on changing gender roles, on workforce participation, on women’s legal equality. For conservative women, the Roe decision was, in many ways, the final straw. The ability to decide when and if to have a baby was part of a slide toward making motherhood optional, in their view, finishing the dangerous project the women’s movement had started a decade earlier: demoting motherhood from a sacred calling to a job. In this context, it is hardly surprising that at least tacit support for IVF — a procedure that may violate the sanctity of life but that facilitates biological motherhood for women who yearn for it — became widespread even among antiabortion advocates.

Amy Coney Barrett sits at an uncomfortable crossroads in today’s conservative thought: where the religious value in having biological children within a traditional family unit, a central tenet of the Republican Party, comes into direct conflict with the religious belief that egg plus sperm equals a human being. “It’s much more difficult to try to explain what is objectionable about IVF,” Ann Scheidler, the co-founder of the Pro-Life Action League, has conceded. The average IVF patient is in her 30s, married, college educated, well off, and white. She is, in other words, the same woman whose increasingly empty womb has obsessed policy makers and politicians from Theodore Roosevelt to Paul Ryan.

Those who objected to abortion on religious grounds once, not so very far in the past, saw abortion and IVF as one and the same. Now the line in the sand falls somewhere in between. If the Senate confirms Barrett, riding on the votes of senators who may have children or grandchildren of their own born through IVF, it will be because they believe that, unlike abortion, IVF is a dead issue, one that Barrett and a Supreme Court hell-bent on overturning Roe couldn’t touch even if they wanted to. For today’s antiabortion movement, the ends — in this case, the transformation of a childless woman into a mother — have come to obscure, if not to fully or comfortably justify, the means.

Peggy O’Donnell is an assistant instructional professor in the Department of History at the University of Chicago and the author of the forthcoming book “Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother.”