University of Alabama at Birmingham halts IVF services after state court's ruling on embryos

After a recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling on the legal status of embryos led the state’s largest healthcare system to halt its in vitro fertilization (IVF) services, medical organizations are warning that others are likely to follow.

The court’s decision, handed down late last week in a pair of wrongful death cases, affirmed that under state law, “unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location or any other ancillary characteristics.”

In filed briefs, parties on the other side of the ruling including the Medical Association of the State of Alabama had warned that such a stance would limit access to fertility treatments like IVF, in which multiple eggs are typically fertilized and preserved as frozen embryos.

Those predictions came to pass Wednesday when the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) health system released a statement that it would be pausing IVF treatments.  

Specifically, the system said that it would continue to perform egg retrievals and earlier-stage fertility care but that fertilization and development of an embryo is on hold.

“We are saddened that this will impact our patients' attempt to have a baby through IVF, but we must evaluate the potential that our patients and our physicians could be prosecuted criminally or face punitive damages for following the standard of care for IVF treatments,” the system said in its statement.

Assisted reproductive technologies, among which IVF is the most prevalent, led to 91,906 live births across the country in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There were also 167,689 assisted reproductive technology cycles performed that same year resulted in either eggs or embryos frozen for later use, per the CDC.

Within Alabama alone, the CDC reported 407 live birth deliveries and 966 embryo transfers stemming from assisted reproductive technologies in 2021.

In a Wednesday statement, the Medical Association of the State of Alabama said it was concerned that the decision “will likely lead to fewer babies … as fertility options become limited for those who want to have a family.”

As for UAB’s decision to pause IVF services, “others will likely do the same, leaving little to no alternatives for reproductive assistance,” the association wrote. “IVF is oftentimes the only option for couples wanting to conceive. … We ask that the Alabama Supreme Court stay or revisit their ruling to ensure continued access to IVF care in Alabama.”

Barbara Collura, president and CEO of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, said the court’s ruling and UAB’s announcement have “crushed” the hopes of Alabamans in the midst of or seeking what is already “a physically and emotionally challenging medical process.”

“This cruel ruling, and the subsequent decision by UAB’s health system, are horrifying signals of what’s to come across the country,” Collura said Wednesday.