On Friday 26 June 2022, Roe v Wade (a case in 1973 where the US Supreme Court ruled that the US constitution would protect a woman’s choice to have an abortion) was officially reversed. This means that the constitutional right to abortion no longer exists in the US. As an American doctoral researcher investigating infertility treatments, this got me thinking about the effects a decision like this could have on assisted reproductive technologies.
On a recent global scale, many countries have taken the direction of making abortions more accessible. In 2018, Ireland had an abortion referendum,which resulted in lifting their abortion ban. In 2021, Mexico decriminalised abortion, as the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that criminal penalties for terminating pregnancies were unconstitutional. In Germany, on the same day of the Roe v Wade reversal, German Parliament voted to get rid of a ban on ‘abortion advertisement’, a ban that was in place since the World War II.
However, in America it seems the trajectory on accessible abortions will be taking the opposite direction of its global counterparts. The decision of reversing the constitutional right to abortion comes after nearly 50 years of it originally passing, with President Biden stating this could be putting many women’s lives in danger .This poses the question of what effects might overturning Roe v Wade have? Many answers spring to mind like the effects of illegal abortions, which include, but are not limited to, physical and mental health complications, social and financial burdens for women and their families, and problems to communities and health systems. The World Health Organization states that lack of access to safe, timely, affordable and respectful abortion care is also a critical public health and a human rights issue.
Abortion terminates a pregnancy, but what about artificially starting one? Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) helps treat people with infertility, and aids in allowing people to conceive. In 1978, Louise Joy Brown was the first woman to be born by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and was considered one of ‘the most remarkable medical breakthroughs of the 20th century’. From its onset, the medical breakthrough opened up a host of controversies and received backlash from the public, raising ethical and religious concerns. In the Catholic Christian faith, Pope Paul VI expressed concerns about artificial insemination and condemned the medical procedure, he stated ‘generative process’ should never be intentionally interrupted, as doing so would go against the Natural Law and the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings.
It’s important to note that the scientific definition of when life begins is when the development of the embryo starts. This happens when a sperm fertilises an oocyte, and together they form a zygote. When someone undergoes IVF for example, an egg is removed from the woman’s ovaries and fertilised with sperm in a laboratory. The fertilized egg, called an embryo, is then returned to the woman’s womb to grow and develop. It can be carried out using the woman’s eggs and the partner’s sperm, or eggs and sperm from donors.
Once an embryo is formed and used, many people will freeze their other embryos for later use. Frozen embryos are stored at an IVF clinics in hopes to conceive again, other frozen embryos may be used for research, and some will be ethically disposed of. Nevertheless, the person who undergoes the treatment has had that choice. There are currently around 400,000 frozen unused embryos stored in IVF clinics in the US.
So, for those involved in ART (researchers, medical practitioners and patients) questions arise like what ripple effects will reversing Roe v Wade have on infertility treatments, in particular IVF? What will happen to the parents’ choice of the frozen embryos, whose lives have scientifically begun? And what responsibility will fall on the shoulders of ART medical professionals?
Cecilia Isabel Urrutia is an American doctoral researcher at Middlesex University in London who is working on perceptions of children born by ART in Guatemala.