Abortion Access

Declaring that frozen embryos are children: Ala. ruling shows the real-world harm of religious extremism

  Declaring that frozen embryos are children: Ala. ruling shows the real-world harm of religious extremism

By Sofia Tomov

Thanks to a recent Alabama Supreme Court decision that classifies embryos as children, a frozen embryo has more rights than a person with a uterus. After the ruling on Feb. 16, several fertility clinics in Alabama paused in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments, although they’ve since resumed some of them after state lawmakers passed legislation that supposedly shields the clinics from legal liability – although critics say it doesn’t go far enough.

The reason behind this ruling? “Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself,” asserted Tom Parker, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in a concurring opinion.

While the separation of church and state is a founding principle of American government as written in the U.S. Constitution, this decision reflects a blatant ignorance of the constitutional protections intended to not only safeguard individual religious expression but also to prevent one particular set of religious beliefs from dictating government policies. By using Bible quotes and fundamentalist Christian ideology as legal reasoning, the Alabama Supreme Court has not only violated the Constitution but has codified religion into law in a way that will cause direct harm.

Fallout from the ruling

Here’s what is already starting to happen as a result of this ruling:

People are struggling to access necessary health care. Doctors fear being charged with wrongful death of a minor if a frozen embryo becomes damaged prior to being transferred into a uterus (a small but natural possibility). The closure of clinics will prevent people from accessing fertility care and having children when they might otherwise be unable to for medical reasons. This is tied to the broader trend of restricting reproductive health care in any form – whether that be IVF or abortion – which has led to shortages in OB/GYN care as doctors avoid practicing in states where they fear criminalization for providing care, reports the Journal of the American Medical Association. This is life-threatening to people in Alabama, as the state already has an overall maternal mortality rate nearly double the national average, and a far higher Black maternal mortality rate of 100.07 deaths per 100,000 births. Black people are already three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white people, and any laws restricting access to reproductive healthcare further increase this harm while targeting marginalized communities.

People are experiencing a violation of the human right of bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy, which the United Nations defines as “the power, agency, and ability to make choices over our bodies and futures without violence and coercion” – is a fundamental human right. Defining embryos as children and criminalizing doctors for natural and unpreventable risks associated with IVF violates bodily autonomy in two major ways: It prevents people who want children and may be incapable of having children without IVF from starting a family and it prevents people in need of an abortion from accessing care due to policies that deem a frozen fetus of greater value than a living, thinking person making a decision about their health, livelihood, and future.

A dangerous and nonsensical precedent has been set. Using religion in place of logical and legal reasoning has opened up some absurd questions – does every frozen embryo get a Social Security number? Can frozen embryos be considered dependent children for tax purposes? Does everyone’s legal age in Alabama suddenly increase by nine months now? Clearly, Christian Nationalist policymakers ignore factors that are supposed to inform legal policy in favor of personal religious ideology that is not only unjust but completely breaks down when questioned logically. This raises some other, less absurd questions – what injustice might be coming next? If the constitutional protection of church-state separation can be violated so grossly in Alabama without consequences, how far can religious extremism be used to fuel policy decisions before it is stopped?

What you can do

When the breakdown of logic and reason becomes normalized in government, what is the best way to resist and protect our communities?

While confronting this policy injustice may feel like an insurmountable task when policymakers ignore both logic and their constituents, any action – no matter how small – can cause significant change. Resistance can take a variety of forms depending on your skills, passions and needs. For example, resistance may look like gathering in protest to express direct opposition to unjust policies, working with community organizations that meet the needs of people impacted by these unjust policies, donating/fundraising to support impacted communities and educating yourself and others on the systems of oppression that shape these policies – to name just a few.

Regardless of the form of resistance that you choose, your voice matters and can help enact real change.

Sofia Tomov is a member of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now