Why the Utah GOP is avoiding a controversial vote on IVF this weekend

The move comes as Donald Trump, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, walks back comments that he supports national abortion restrictions.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of Abortion Free Utah and other groups meet at the Capitol to celebrate the end of Roe v. Wade, on Saturday, July 2, 2022. Utah GOP leaders appear to have stopped delegates from voting on supporting an IVF ban.

A local anti-abortion group wanted to push the Utah Republican Party to clarify where it stands on the legality of in vitro fertilization as it cheers on a near-total abortion ban in front of the Utah Supreme Court. But party leadership are seemingly avoiding a delegate vote on the matter.

An Alabama Supreme Court ruling earlier this year has raised questions about how state abortion bans could limit access to IVF and forced conservative politicians to take a position on whether they would protect the technology annually used by tens of thousands of Americans looking to expand their families.

That decision inspired Voice for the Voiceless president and elected state GOP delegate Kriss Martenson to sponsor a resolution to “urge the Utah legislature to enact legislation to abolish in vitro fertilization,” and a party platform amendment to call for “equal protection laws for preborn children from the moment of fertilization.”

Martenson told The Salt Lake Tribune that he submitted the proposals “well before” the March 28 deadline and that he had secured the five other required delegate endorsements. The party’s Platform/Resolution Committee rejected the proposals and they are not on the agenda for Saturday’s state nominating convention — which lands on the last day of National Infertility Awareness Week.

Leadership for the Utah Republican Party did not respond to multiple requests for clarification on why Voice for the Voiceless’ platform amendment and resolution won’t come up for a delegate vote — the results of which would be made public. From Martenson’s perspective, the reasons were “absolutely” political.

Former Weber County Republican Party Chair Lacy Richards is sponsoring a separate amendment to the “Right to Life” portion of the party platform that will be considered this weekend, which adds “we support adoption” into the text.

“I think it’s important that we as a party don’t just tell people what not to do, but that we offer real, viable alternatives,” Richards said, adding that she was “not super familiar” with Voice for the Voiceless’ proposals.

‘Every opportunity to try to grow our family’

Voice for the Voiceless, which will have a booth at the convention, differentiates itself from abortion opponents who call themselves “pro-life,” saying they are “abolitionists” because they don’t believe there should be any exceptions to abortion bans.

Members of the group often attend state legislative hearings to speak against bills restricting abortion, saying they don’t go far enough. Martinson characterized IVF practices as “taking the lives of babies.”

Embryos created as part of IVF are either transferred into a person’s uterus or frozen for future use. Both in natural and assisted reproductive processes, it’s common for embryos not to survive long enough to become pregnancies.

Freezing unused embryos can increase the likelihood that IVF will eventually result in a successful pregnancy, reduce health risks for the mother and make the costly process more affordable, according to the Mayo Clinic. Other proposed IVF regulations, like barring the disposal of surplus embryos, would likely drive up prices and could lead to limits on the number of embryos produced per IVF cycle.

“Parents that are going through IVF and fertility processes want nothing more than those embryos to become children,” said Sara Mecham, a spokesperson for the Utah Infertility Resource Center. “It’s heartbreaking to see [calls to ban IVF] when so many use that approach. … We should have every opportunity to try to grow our family, not just those people who can do it without assistive technologies.”

After the first-of-its-kind Alabama ruling that embryos created through IVF are children and medical providers could be held liable for destroying them, Mecham said numerous people who have sought help to have children reached out to the center asking if they should be worried about the same thing happening in Utah.

The Utah Infertility Resource Center reassured them, Mecham said, pointing out Utah’s laws have never been used to limit the technology — but “that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen here.”

Mecham said Voice for the Voiceless should not be relied on as an authority when shaping IVF policies, noting that the only source cited in its resolution is the Bible.

“That alone should keep it out of politics — we have a separation of church and state for a reason,” Mecham said. “If there’s concerns about the procedures from IVF, then I would say talk to those who are the experts in it, with personal or professional expertise.”

Abortion bans have become a political liability

Laws around reproductive health have emerged as a vulnerability for the GOP since the majority Republican-appointed U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade — the ruling that protected abortion as a constitutional right — in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022.

Abortion trigger bans in red states throughout the country, including Utah, immediately went into effect after the Dobbs decision. Utah’s 2020 trigger law almost completely outlaws abortion, with exceptions for victims of rape and incest, when the life of the mother is at risk and in the case of a fetal abnormality that is “incompatible with life.” Abortion remains legal up to 18 weeks in Utah while that law is tied up in court.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has distanced himself from past comments that he would support a 15- or 16-week national abortion ban and has said abortion policymaking should be left to states. Trump has also said he supports access to IVF, but hasn’t clarified whether he would protect that access.

In the last two years, six states who backed both former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden in 2020 have held votes on constitutional amendments related to abortion. Each time, voters have backed abortion access.

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted earlier this month indicated that 61% of Americans say abortion either should always be legal or should be legal with some restrictions. Last year, abortion became a key issue in races across the country, helping Democrats win the Kentucky gubernatorial election and control of the Virginia statehouse.

So far, that pattern hasn’t continued in religiously conservative Utah, where residents have not yet seen a total abortion ban. Tying the legality of IVF to abortion policies could change that.

According to data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021 approximately 1,173 Utah babies were conceived through assisted reproductive technology, the vast majority of which is IVF. That accounts for 2.5% of all births in Utah that year.

Potential prohibitions of the technology, like abortion bans, often hinge on when a fetus is legally considered a person. If that personhood starts at conception, people could be held liable for destroying frozen embryos created and stored for IVF treatments.

Utah is one of just over a dozen states where residents can take legal action for the wrongful death of an “unborn child” at any stage of development. The state also defines criminal homicide as “an act causing the death of another human being, including an unborn child at any stage of the unborn child’s development,” with exceptions for abortions and deaths unintentionally caused by the mother.

A 2011 case posed a question to the Utah Supreme Court about whether medical providers could be held liable for a stillbirth after the parents alleged medical negligence. Four of five justices agreed that “statute allows an action for the wrongful death of an unborn child.” But those laws have not been applied in the use of fertility therapies like IVF.

The Beehive State also has laws on the books that require insurance providers to cover infertility treatments, meaning some of the cost burden associated with potential IVF restrictions would likely be passed on to employers.

While the direction of reproductive health policy in Utah remains up in the air, the state lawmaker who sponsored the trigger ban one week after the Alabama ruling quoted a post on X rejecting claims that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “can support IVF” saying, “Being pro-life is awesome!”

It’s unclear how state delegates, who collectively tend to lean more conservative than the rest of registered Republicans in Utah, might have voted on Voice for the Voiceless’ proposals. Many are also Latter-day Saints, whose church policies characterize IVF as “a personal matter that is ultimately left to the judgment and prayerful consideration of a lawfully married man and woman.”

Utah Republicans are trying to win five statewide races this year, including one for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and are competing in four congressional races.