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Senate GOP blocks IVF access bill as Democrats press for political edge

TIERNEY L. CROSS / NEW YORK TIMES
                                Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) speaks at a news conference concerning access to IVF treatment at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday. Senate Republicans today blocked legislation that would codify the right to access fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization.
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TIERNEY L. CROSS / NEW YORK TIMES

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) speaks at a news conference concerning access to IVF treatment at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday. Senate Republicans today blocked legislation that would codify the right to access fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization.

WASHINGTON >> Senate Republicans today blocked legislation that would codify the right to access fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization, in the latest election-year bid by Democrats to spotlight GOP opposition to protecting reproductive freedoms.

On a vote of 48-47, all but two Republicans opposed advancing the bill, which would give Americans the statutory right to receive fertility treatments and decide how their reproductive material is used, stored and disposed of. That left the measure well short of the 60 votes it needed to move forward, an outcome Democrats anticipated and even welcomed as part of their strategy to remind voters where Republicans stand on issues of abortion and reproductive health.

“Protecting IVF should be the easiest ‘yes’ vote senators have taken all year,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader. “It is a contradiction to claim that you are pro-family but then turn around and block protections for IVF.”

The action came a week after a test vote on a bill that would enshrine nationwide access to contraception in federal law, which Republicans also blocked.

It also came the day after Southern Baptists, the country’s largest Protestant denomination and a bellwether for the larger American evangelical movement, voted to oppose the use of IVF. That decision could put many conservative lawmakers in an even tougher political position on the issue.

Republicans have struggled to find a winning message on IVF that appeases their far-right evangelical base without alienating more mainstream conservatives. Many of them support legislation that declares that life begins at conception, which could severely restrict aspects of IVF. The treatment typically involves creating several embryos, freezing them and implanting only one or two. At the same time, many conservative lawmakers quickly voiced their support for fertility treatments after a decision by Alabama’s Supreme Court in February that frozen embryos should be considered children.

When asked whether he agreed with the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance that IVF is unethical because a frozen embryo is a person, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said he “wouldn’t go so far.” But he then suggested he was ambivalent.

“I’d have to look at the science on that,” Tuberville, who cosponsored a fetal personhood bill during the last Congress, said today. He said he supported IVF treatment but “would have to think about” whether frozen embryos should be destroyed.

Since the Alabama decision, Democrats have stressed the importance of protecting access to fertility treatments and IVF.

The bill that Democrats sought to push forward this week, the Right to IVF Act, was sponsored by Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. It would codify a right to fertility treatments and require that government insurance providers that serve federal employees, military personnel and veterans provide coverage for it.

Americans overwhelmingly support access to IVF treatment. A survey in April from the Pew Research Center found that 7 in 10 adults said access to IVF was a good thing, and only 8% said the opposite; another 22% said they were unsure.

As Senate Democrats sought to put Republicans on the record with a position that is at odds with a vast majority of voters, GOP lawmakers in the House were seeking to attach anti-abortion amendments to the annual defense policy bill. The proposal from Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, would prohibit payments and reimbursements from the Defense Department for expenses for abortion care, including travel expenses.

Across the Capitol, just two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, crossed party lines to support moving forward on Duckworth’s bill. Other GOP senators condemned the action as a “show vote” and listed several reasons they were opposed, while at the same time still claiming they unequivocally supported IVF.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, accused Democrats of playing political games with IVF given that the treatment is legal in all 50 states and “not in any jeopardy” of being outlawed.

“The only reason why they’re doing this is to try to scare people,” Cornyn said.

Several Republicans, including Sens. Rick Scott of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, said Democrats would never give them a chance to put forward their own proposals to protect IVF. But the measures Republicans have offered have drawn little support in their own ranks and contain no affirmative right to fertility treatments.

In the Senate, Republicans have sought to blunt their political liability on the IVF issue with legislation of their own. Cruz and Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., have introduced a bill that would block Medicaid funding to any state that bans IVF treatment. But that measure has only three Republican cosponsors and has drawn the ire of anti-abortion groups. Abortion rights supporters also condemn it as meaningless because it would do nothing to protect access to fertility treatments if states severely restricted them but did not impose an outright ban.

Duckworth called the Republican bill a “sham” because it would not explicitly protect IVF providers from prosecution or civil liability under laws that hold that a fetus is a person.

“If fetal personhood exists, and they don’t address that issue, then you’re going to see what happened in Alabama: All the IVF clinics are going to shut down,” she said.

Britt said Duckworth’s bill “treads on religious freedoms,” implying that it could force people who do not believe in IVF treatments to provide them. But Democrats note that the legislation does not force anyone to furnish such treatments.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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