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First they came for our abortions, now they’re coming for our embryos

The Southern Baptist Convention’s vote condemning IVF is the latest assault on fertility treatment that 1 in 6 Jewish families use

On Wednesday, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to condemn the use of in vitro fertilization. As the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. that helped elect Donald Trump, the evangelical campaign against embryos does not surprise me.

In fact, it frightens me.

As someone who went through nine rounds of IVF, saw 10 fertility doctors and underwent treatment in both the U.S. and Israel over four years to create embryos that resulted in our daughter in 2015, I have been sounding the alarm bells for years about the religious right’s war on IVF.

With Roe v. Wade overturned, and women’s right to abortion under threat across the country, it’s a hard alarm to hear, to focus on a threat to what some may view as an “optional” treatment. But the fight to include these personhood bills in the anti-abortion laws is a relatively new development, and one that we have to fight at all costs.

Infertility is a disease, affecting 1 in 6 women worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.  And, according to the Jewish Fertility Foundation, 17% of Jewish women are using infertility services like IVF. 

And fertility treatment — whether it’s an intrauterine insemination “turkey baster” treatment to put sperm directly into a woman’s uterus or IVF to create embryos in the lab and then transfer them to a woman’s uterus — is not “optional.” Especially not for Jews, whose first commandment in the Torah is “Be fruitful and multiply.” 

The Jewish community is pro-natalist — especially now, with Israel under threat and antisemitism skyrocketing around the world — and the last thing we need, that any woman needs, is a further threat to her reproductive rights, including the right to infertility treatment. 

In fact, this week, the Senate also tried to protect IVF, with Democrats putting forth “The Right to IVF Act,” a bill that would guarantee access to in vitro fertilization nationwide. 

“This is all part of the bigger picture of an attack on reproductive rights… We don’t have federal protection for IVF. We need to get that done in Congress,” Barbara Collura, the president and CEO of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in March about how Congress can act to protect IVF.

But this legislation failed in a procedural vote by a tally of 48-47 (It needed 60 votes to advance).  “Why should we vote for a bill that fixes a nonexistent problem? There’s not a problem. There’s no restrictions on IVF, nor should there be,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters.

How wrong he is. In at least 14 states, legislatures have introduced “Fetal personhood” bills, giving legal rights and protections to embryos and fetuses. 

That means that those “embabies,” as my husband and I used to jokingly refer to our embryos sitting on ice, would have the same rights as actual children. They can’t be destroyed, donated to science or legislated as property, as many divorced couples are trying to do. 

And if they can’t be destroyed or donated, the logical conclusion for some religious (men) in power is that they shouldn’t be created in the first place.

This is nothing new: The Catholic Church has been against IVF from the very beginning, calling it “morally unacceptable” because it separates the marriage act from procreation and establishes “the domination of technology” over human life, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Unlike the Catholic Church, most Jews do not believe that life begins at conception but instead at first breath. Halacha does not see embryos as children. (In fact, Jewish law does not require traditional mourning or burial practices for a baby who lived fewer than 30 days.) Secondly, we believe in using science to help people have children — so much so that many Orthodox Jews use religious fertility supervisors to prevent mix-ups and mistakes in the IVF process.

But in this new millennium, where facts are fungible and science is suspect, it seems like the religious right — for once out of step with the Jewish religious right — might be winning battles inch by inch in states, in courts and in the hearts of people throughout the United States.

It’s true however, that there is a surplus embryo problem, with estimates varying between hundreds of thousands to over a million. That is because clinics create many embryos — more than a couple may need — in the IVF process, and people are hesitant to get rid of them (by destroying them or donating them to science) because they are unsure if they are done building their families, or they feel emotionally connected to them.

But most of us who have created embryos know that these embryos are not alive. Most of us who have gone through dozens of embryos to get one child understand that these embryos are the potential for life, like an oocyte or a sperm, but not life itself. 

And we Jews, who hold all life sacred, now more than ever, should be at the forefront of this fight: the fight to create life, to explain what life actually is and to protect fertility treatment from anyone trying to destroy it.

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