In the Midwest, the push for embryo rights worries IVF patients and doctors

May 28, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

Jacqueline Brock, Iowa IVF patient
Iowan Jacqueline Brock underwent seven years of fertility treatments before a third round of IVF produced two embryos, one of which resulted in a healthy pregnancy. Now, Brock and her husband, James, say they're concerned their options could be limited for the remaining embryo if it stays in Iowa following the state legislature's recent push to give rights to fetuses generally ascribed to a person. (Natalie Krebs/Iowa Public Radio)

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For seven years, Jacqueline Brock endured grueling fertility treatments – and all of the emotion that came with it.

“I had to stop going to outings with our friends because they’d bring their kids or talk about their kids. And I would just cry,” she said. “I didn't go to a lot of baby showers and things because I couldn't physically handle it.”

Last year, Brock, who lives in West Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, James, underwent a third round of in vitro fertilization, or IVF. It produced two embryos. She had one implanted. This time it worked, resulting in one of the best moments of her life.

“I got a call from our fertility clinic, and all of the nurses and our doctors, they're on the phone. And they all yelled out we were pregnant,” she said.

Brock’s daughter, Eloise, was born in January.

But her joy quickly turned to frustration when a month later, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos created through IVF should be considered children.

Brock felt for the women who had to pause their IVF cycles during the initial confusion in the wake of the ruling, but it also made her concerned about the couple’s remaining embryo. They want a second child.

At the time, several Midwestern states, including Iowa, Indiana, Kansas and Missouri, were considering bills that could impact families seeking IVF. The bills would give some rights to embryos and fetuses that are generally ascribed to a person.

“I remember I just started crying, and I was so angry,” she said.

Doctors told Brock she likely can’t use the remaining embryo to carry another pregnancy herself for medical reasons, but she and her husband are considering other options, like surrogacy. But the precarious legal landscape worries them a lot.

“We were talking about, ‘Do we need to get a lawyer to figure out what to do with our embryo, or do we need to move our embryo to another state so that it's safe?’” Brock said.

‘I just never really, truly believed that that would happen’

During the legislative session in 13 states, lawmakers introduced bills that could give rights to embryos and fetuses that generally protect a person, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that supports abortion rights.

The Iowa House passed a bill that would increase criminal penalties for causing someone to lose a pregnancy without their consent and would change the term “terminates a human pregnancy” to “causes the death of an unborn child.”

Kansas looked at a bill that would provide child support for “unborn children” from the date of conception. In Missouri where abortion is mostly banned, the statehouse saw a bill that said “unborn children…are entitled to the same rights, powers, privileges, justice, and protections” as any other person in the state. There was also a state senate bill that established standards on how courts determine custody of an embryo.

Indiana lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow pregnant people to claim their fetuses as dependents on their state taxes.

A bill in Ohio would have recognized the constitutional rights of “all unborn human individuals from the moment of conception.”

None of the bills passed this year, but they’re expected to come up in the future.

Anti-abortion groups in Nebraska are currently pushing for a ballot initiative that would ban abortions after the first trimester and define “a preborn person at every stage of development” as a person.

At the same time, there is a shifting patchwork of state abortion bans in place that further complicate and cause confusion about reproductive choices.

Policy experts say they expect anti-abortion lawmakers to bring up similar bills in next year’s legislative sessions.

“Really the greater push has been to really seek to restrict a lot of different types of sexual and reproductive health care.” said Kimya Forouzan, the principal state policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute. “And one of the ways to do that is by establishing personhood in the law.”

These initiatives, along with the Alabama Supreme Court decision and the disruption it caused the state’s IVF clinics, are concerning to medical professionals.

“I just never really, truly believed that that would happen,” Abby Mancuso, an infertility specialist in Des Moines, Iowa, said.

It’s common practice during IVF to create extra embryos in case of abnormalities or other issues, but embryos can easily be damaged, as they were in the case central to the Alabama decision, she said.

When embryos are legally considered children, that could have a detrimental impact on doctors, Mancuso said.

“If you're an embryologist or an institution, and you could be held criminally liable for any damage that occurred to these microscopic cells, that's obviously a concern,” she said.

There’s also the civil liability concern, which puts facilities at risk of being sued for a lot of money and damages.

Debates over abortion and IVF protections are expected to play a significant role in the upcoming election.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull, said the "unborn person" definition is already in state law and has not jeopardized IVF. (Grant Gerlock/Iowa Public Radio)

‘It's hard to really write in exceptions’

Proponents of bills that define life as beginning at conception say they want to ensure they are written so they protect IVF and fertility treatments.

Following the Alabama Supreme Court decision, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law shielding IVF patients and providers from legal liability.

When Iowa Democrats brought up concerns about how a bill that would change “human pregnancy” to “unborn person” could affect IVF in the state during a House debate in March, Republican Rep. Skyler Wheeler, who sponsored the bill, dismissed them as irrelevant and alarmist.

“Sometimes you hear things and you see things, and you just can't wrap your head around the madness,” he said.

Critics disagree with this sentiment.

“It's hard to really write in exceptions that are truly going to protect families and IVF and other fertility treatments, while still keeping the position that an embryo is a person,” Sarah Wilson, an attorney who specializes in fertility and adoption practices, said.

In the meantime, Wilson said it’s added more stress for her clients who are already going through a difficult, complicated process.

“Instead of the hope and excitement that I usually hear from them, they come to me with concern and they're scared,” she said. “They are not sure if their legal parentage will be protected, and if they'll have decisions over their own medical care.”

Some of Wilson’s clients are nervous about what the future might hold for states like Iowa and are talking about pursuing fertility treatment out of state.

Jacqueline Brock and her husband are considering contacting an attorney like Wilson to figure out their options for their remaining embryo. This includes moving it to a neighboring state, so it doesn’t get caught up in any legal gray areas in the future.

“It's really scary to think that like we have this embryo, and if we do decide to discard it, we could potentially get criminally charged for doing that,” she said. “And there aren't a lot of options for us with the embryo.”


This story comes from a collaboration between Side Effects Public Media and the Midwest Newsroom — an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

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