Two Alabama fertility clinics say they will resume IVF services after bill to protect doctors passes

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Two Alabama fertility clinics that paused in vitro fertilization services last month expect to resume them now that state lawmakers have passed a bill to protect doctors and clinics that discard embryos as part of routine IVF services.

The bill “provides the protections that we need to start care — or resume care, really,” said Dr. Janet Bouknight, an IVF provider at Alabama Fertility, which suspended IVF services Feb. 22 after the state Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are considered unborn children.

Bouknight said the clinic does around 10 egg retrievals and 10 frozen embryo transfers per week, so around 40 patients may not have received promised care during the pause in IVF services.

Dr. Warner Huh, chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said in a video statement that the bill “provides some protections and will therefore allow UAB to restart in vitro fertilization treatments, also known as IVF.”

“While UAB is moving to promptly resume IVF treatments, we will continue to assess developments and advocate for protections for IVF patients and our providers,” he continued.

After the court ruling Feb. 16, IVF providers were concerned that they could face legal repercussions for getting rid of embryos — a common part of IVF, because some embryos have genetic abnormalities or are no longer needed. That prompted Alabama Fertility and two other Alabama clinics to suspend IVF services.

Since then, legislators from both parties have called for legal safeguards to protect IVF providers in the state.

A bill that passed Wednesday evening offers civil and criminal “immunity” to doctors, clinics and other health care personnel who provide IVF.

Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to sign it into law imminently.

The bill says “no action, suit, or criminal prosecution for the damage to or death of an embryo shall be brought or maintained against any individual or entity when providing or receiving services related to in vitro fertilization.”

However, it does not specify whether frozen embryos created via IVF have the same rights as children under state law. For that reason, some legal experts and reproductive rights advocates worry it does not go far enough.

“While we are grateful for the actions of Alabama legislators, this legislation does not address the underlying issue of the status of embryos as part of the IVF process — threatening the long-term standard of care for IVF patients. There is more work to be done,” Barbara Collura, the CEO of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, said in a statement Wednesday evening.

The bill’s Republican sponsors characterized the legislation as a quick fix to allow IVF clinics to resume normal operations.

Bouknight said legislators “understand the pressing need to get this fixed and to have a lasting solution.”

The bill could also make companies that store and ship embryos more comfortable with operating in Alabama. At least one major embryo shipping company, Cryoport, paused operations there after the court decision. The company did not respond to an inquiry about whether it will resume services in Alabama.

Brad Senstra, the CEO of ReproTech — a company that offers long-term storage for embryos — said the company had been in talks with Alabama clinics about helping them with embryo storage before the ruling. After the state Supreme Court decision, he said, the company restricted employees from picking up embryo shipments from Alabama clinics in person.

Senstra said he feels comfortable lifting the restriction now, because the bill seems to cover storage services.

“Handling of embryos and storing them for patients is definitely providing services related to in vitro fertilization,” he said.

Meghan Cole, a patient at Alabama Fertility, had been planning to start a family via a surrogate because she has a blood disorder that prevents her from safely carrying a pregnancy. But the planned embryo transfer procedure was canceled after the clinic paused its IVF services.

Now that the clinic intends to start offering IVF again, Cole said, she wants to move forward with the transfer.

The last few weeks have been “a roller coaster of emotions,” she said, “from being completely devastated to having hope and now being excited to continue the journey.”

But Cole worries about what might happen in Alabama in the future.

“While this is a win for us right now and a Band-Aid to get us back on track, we’re still planning to move our embryos out of the state,” she said. “I don’t trust what the state’s going to do and don’t want to have to either keep my embryos in storage in perpetuity or not be allowed to discard them.”

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