Pressing Matters

Bad Journalism Is Giving Life to the “Fetal Personhood” Lie

For years, reproductive-justice activists have been warning that the GOP’s “fetal personhood” bills would endanger access to birth control and fertility treatment—especially IVF. Why hasn't the media taken them to task?

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It took ten years for me to have a baby, and at no point in that time did I think: You know what would make this grueling, expensive, uncomfortable process even better? The federal government’s involvement.

During my thrice-daily injections of hormones, my daily blood draws, and twice-weekly ultrasounds, not once did I want my congressman to monitor the work of my healthcare workers—not my doctors or nurses or medical technicians. 

Nor did I have any need during two failed cycles, three early miscarriages, and various meetings about studies regarding possible fertility drugs to have a judge interrupt my expensive, complicated, very-carefully-timed treatment so he could cite random Bible quotes and lecture me about the value of my then-hypothetical children, I would have gone thermonuclear on them.

But frighteningly enough, that’s the reality millions of people are facing as the GOP continues its assault on bodily autonomy across the country, aided and abetted by compliant political reporters who refuse to portray conditions for pregnant patients as being as dire as they are. 

In February, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a fertility clinic that had accidentally destroyed a couple’s embryos—fertilized eggs used during in vitro fertilization to help people conceive a child—was liable for the “wrongful death of a minor.” The ruling implicitly granted embryos as many if not more legal rights than fully-formed humans.

The Alabama Chief Justice, Tom Parker, cited the Bible in his legal reasoning, writing, “Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God.”

The consequences were immediate and devastating: Clinics in Alabama stopped treatment, fearing they could be sued for wrongful death if they discarded unused embryos, as is common during the procedure.

Reproductive-justice activists have been warning for years that the GOP’s push for “fetal personhood” status not only endangers access to abortion and birth control, but to fertility treatment, and especially IVF. If an embryo is a human being, with all the rights and privileges thereof under the law, then storing them in freezers is, by their logic, clearly an act of “cruelty,” and discarding them is “homicide.”

And the media we have entrusted to be truth tellers, to report and explain reproductive health and lay bare the motivations of politicians and activists, are instead inviting TV appearances and op-eds from the same anti-abortion reactionaries who are now pretending IVF is some kind of mad-scientist nightmare that would lead to “cloning, selling ‘genetic materials of humans,’” and other Island of Doctor Moreau nonsense. 

New York Times’ Republican Opinion columnist Ross Douthat, often seen slut-scolding women on birth control and pretending to be put-upon for his traditional family values, has attempted to assure the public that the GOP wasn’t going to ban IVF—they’re just going to regulate it, he promises! Surely the geniuses in the U.S. Congress were the right people to decide the number of fertilized eggs a couple could produce; how those fertilized eggs would be handled, and what all the moral implications are! 

“The House bill [pushed by GOP operatives following the Alabama ruling] seems like it could be interpreted to require more regulations on embryo creation/destruction—along the lines of rules that prevail in some other developed countries—though I suspect it would require further legislation to actually have that effect,” Douthat tweeted on X, arguing with commenters who stated correctly that fetal personhood bills such as he described would effectively end fertility treatment.

In the weeks since the Alabama ruling, Republicans have stated they want to protect IVF, that they want to restrict IVF, that they oppose laws that touch IVF in any way. GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson at first said “we support the sanctity of life” and now says Congress shouldn’t touch the issue. Former presidential candidate Nikki Haley claimed embryos were “babies” and then said IVF was “pro-life.” And Republican lawmakers claiming they supported IVF later voted to block Democratic bills protecting it.

All of this ambiguity is the point. GOP lawmakers want to make clinics afraid to do their work. They aim to terrorize infertile or single women, queer and gender non-conforming people, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the preferred Christian cis-hetero married breeding profile. Only GOP lawmakers can and will decide who is deemed worthy enough to be considered fully human (cell groupings, yes; trans people, no), and will therefore interfere in and dictate people’s most personal medical decisions, and rob them of their reproductive freedom. That is the point.

Doctors and nurses don’t need second-guessing from elected officials, as has been proven again and again during GOP assaults on private medical decisions. This is the same party that once stopped the entire federal government in its tracks to debate whether the husband of a tragically injured woman should be able to remove her feeding tube and allow her to die. This is the same party that pushed and continues to push for national laws restricting citizens’ bodily autonomy based on spurious anecdotes, doctored videos, and deceptively edited statements, and says that cow ultrasound data supports laws regulating the bodies of women.


This kind of incoherence is where journalists should take the lead, not just pointing out the panicked flip-flopping of lawmakers surprised by the consequences of their own actions, but putting them in the historical context of years of deceit and disdain for the very real lives of women. 

The journalism establishment has been cowed by right-wing anti-abortion activists for decades. Editors and producers let judicial candidates lie that Roe v. Wade was “settled law,” took patently dishonest lawmakers at their word when they said they would make exceptions for women’s life and health, and dismissed any urgency over reproductive freedom (even as women marched every year for abortion rights and states passed ever-more restrictive laws) as hysterical scaremongering. 

The GOP is presently trying to walk a fine line in public because those who can access IVF tend to be white, wealthy or upper middle class, and some reports like this one in NBC News make this cynicism clear. 

However, far too much coverage of the issue still allows right-wing lawmakers to tie themselves in rhetorical knots unchallenged. Pressing them to either be honest about their craven motivations or admit their utter ignorance of complex medical issues is a journalist’s job. 

And they should amplify the perspectives of those who’ve gone through the process over those of mendacious smear-merchants. During my own IVF process, I encountered extraordinary kindness, exemplary care, thoughtfulness not just for my own health but for those of any embryos we created (for the record, six, and we had none left over). No one was cavalier, or experimental, or did anything without my explicit consent. No one suggested destroying genetic material on a whim, or acted like they didn’t consider our wishes paramount.

Unethical clinics, malpracticing doctors, irresponsible would-be parents: Of course those exist. There is no process that someone will not exploit. But to pretend those abuses are the norm, or that we don’t already have ways of addressing them, is to repeat the same lies that led us to the end of Roe v. Wade

For 50 years, anti-abortion demagogues have been screaming outside clinics that anyone who disagreed with them was a baby-killing whore. Abortion at any stage, for any reason, was nothing less than murder. 

Evangelical and Catholic churches marshaled millions of votes the GOP’s way because of this stance. It was the cornerstone of their “family values” cred. They left no room for compromise on purpose, because it made their messaging simpler: We’re against abortion. Democrats are for it. 

They brushed off the inconvenient truth that human fertility and reproductive care aren’t as simple as a flier or a bumper sticker. They made it a matter of belief, not just policy. There’s no compromise with belief. There’s no room for a little murder, now and then, for a good reason. 

And when Roe fell, that inconvenient truth became blindingly clear as women sickened or die from sepsis, lost wanted children in the most painful and physically debilitating ways possible, and became infertile entirely through terrible and unnecessary infections. The GOP found itself with no answers for any of the complications they’ve refused for decades to consider. 

It’s why their IVF scramble is so transparent to everyone but the political press. Responsible journalists would make clear what was happening, instead of giving over their valuable editorial real estate to let the GOP continue to lie and dissemble and pretend they care about the lives of families they want to legislate out of existence.

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