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The Absurdity at the Heart of the Alabama IVF Controversy

Alabama seeks to cover up the irrationality of anti-abortion ideas.

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When the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are children, conservative politicians feared that their defense of the rights of the unborn would be blamed for derailing IVF treatment for couples desperate to conceive. So politicians like Donald Trump and Nikki Haley urged the Alabama legislature to pass a law making an exception for IVF treatment.

The Alabama legislature has now complied. While it may assuage the immediate fear that IVF will shut down in Alabama, it spotlights what’s so irrational about the decision.

The legislature has not challenged the decision’s most scandalous provision.

The court appeals to an 1872 law allowing wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of the parents of deceased children, adding that the 2022 state constitution makes it the state’s policy to enshrine the “sanctity of life” for the unborn. It then argues that this applies without qualification to the unborn, in or out of the womb. This flawlessly applies the logic of the anti-abortion movement’s premise that mere fertilization creates a human being with rights.

The Alabama legislature could have declared that any embryo outside of the uterus was not an unborn child. But instead it simply stipulated that no lawsuit could be brought against any party to IVF treatment.

Leaving unchallenged the court’s notion that frozen embryos are children, the bill cynically implies that IVF may be murder; it just won’t be prosecuted!

When an argument flawlessly implies an absurd conclusion, it’s a sign that one of its premises is false.

The false premise has always been the notion that fertilization is the basis of rights.

This superstition should never have been taken seriously in the first place. Merely possessing a full set of human chromosomes does not make something a human being with rights. We don’t protect the “rights” of human corpses. A fertilized human embryo has the potential to develop into an individual human being. But so do human sperm and human eggs. Potential human beings are not actual human beings, just as acorns are not oaks. Frozen embryos are at most “seeds” that have not even been planted!

The anti-abortion movement has never rationally explained why acquiring 46 human chromosomes gives an entity a right to life. When Jefferson declared that human beings possess individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he was not considering biochemistry, but how to protect a way of life threatened by British tyranny. Madison’s protections for freedom of speech and the press did not protect DNA, but the Enlightenment value of knowledge, from the threat of mob rule. 

'Potential human beings are not actual human beings, just as acorns are not oaks. Frozen embryos are at most “seeds” that have not even been planted!' Share on X

Individual rights first and foremost defend individual human beings’ abilityto act in a social world, free from coercive interference by other such individuals. Embryos are light years from the central focus of rights. But pretending that they deserve protection violates the rights of those who are the central focus: individual women whose happiness does not include childbirth, and couples seeking IVF whose happiness very much does.

Alabama’s position is not just logically vacuous but morally obscene. It holds that couples trying to conceive are murderers if they destroy frozen embryos. The Alabama law tries to cover up this brazen irrationality by suggesting this murder doesn’t deserve punishment — a travesty used to hide an outrage.

READ ALSO:  Science without Philosophy Can’t Resolve Abortion Debate

The same is true of other exceptions to anti-abortion laws. When it becomes flagrantly unjust to follow anti-abortion premises, the laws carve out exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the mother. To forbid abortion in such cases would be as obscene as outlawing IVF. But the seed of this scandal is the idea that fertilization bestows rights.

Anyone who sees the bizarre logic of the Alabama controversy should now call out the irrationality and injustice of the fertilization premise.

This article was originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on March 14, 2024.

Image credit: Inna Dodor/Shutterstock.com.

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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, PhD in philosophy, is a fellow and director of content at the Ayn Rand Institute and the author of Why the Right to Abortion Is Sacrosanct (2022). Ben is a managing editor of New Ideal and a member of the Ayn Rand University faculty.

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