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Senate wades into abortion debate with IVF bill, Budget hearing

GOP senator blocks an attempt to fast-track a bill to protect access to IVF in the wake of Alabama Supreme Court ruling

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., speaks at a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the Alabama Supreme Court ruling on in vitro fertilization.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., speaks at a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the Alabama Supreme Court ruling on in vitro fertilization. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate on Wednesday dived headlong into reproductive health issues, with Republicans blocking an effort to protect access to in vitro fertilization and the Budget Committee debating whether reproductive rights restrictions had an impact on the economy.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., blocked an attempt by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., to fast-track a bill to protect access to IVF in the wake of an Alabama Supreme Court decision that frozen embryos used in IVF are considered unborn children under the state constitution’s personhood rights.

Hyde-Smith, who opposed an earlier version of Duckworth’s bill in 2022, once again opposed passing the bill, calling it a “vast overreach that is full of poison pills that go way too far.”

Still, she said, “I support the ability of mothers and fathers to have total access to IVF.”

Her comments were met with skepticism by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “Spare me the empty statements, especially after the objection we just saw here,” Murray said after Hyde-Smith objected to passing the bill by unanimous consent.

Their exchange came hours after the Senate Budget Committee used a rare hearing on reproductive health to examine whether and how abortion restrictions affect economic stability.

The hearing was the committee’s first foray into the economic impact of abortion restrictions and part of a broader wave of congressional panels delving into the abortion debate that appear to be increasing as Democrats increasingly see reproductive rights as the salient issue leading into the November elections and Republicans are increasingly shifting federal messaging to pregnancy-related resources. 

At that hearing, Democrats argued that reproductive rights were key to economic strength. 

“Any serious conversation about debt and deficits must also analyze threats to economic growth and stability,” said Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “Reproductive rights are intrinsically tied to economic opportunity.” 

He pointed to a recent Institute for Women’s Policy Research study that estimates state abortion restrictions cost the national economy about $173 billion per year, and he warned that a subsequent Republican administration could restrict access to medication abortion by mail and cause even larger effects.

Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College who studies the impact of contraception and abortion access on economic outcomes, testified that “the decision of whether and when to become a mother is the single largest economic decision many women will make in their lifetimes.” 

Ranking member Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, countered that it was difficult to decouple abortion policy and broader economic changes and instead called on Congress to increase access to and coordination between government programs for pregnant women and mothers in need.

“There is a reason this committee hasn’t historically delved into this issue,” Grassley said.

The hearing comes as even the debate over pregnancy-related resources has become increasingly subject to partisan messaging.

Last month, House Republicans banded together to pass legislation to limit funding restrictions for pregnancy centers that oppose abortion over their concerns regarding a Biden administration proposed rule that would narrow grant eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Budget Committee members on Wednesday touched on both the House efforts on pregnancy centers and the Senate’s efforts on IVF, with Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., saying the Biden policy would “strip support for women and their unborn babies” and Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., worrying about the economic impact of efforts to reduce access to IVF.

But the tension came to a head during questioning from Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who pulled out a large sign depicting a 21-week fetus while he described stages of a second-trimester abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation. Just minutes before, the panel had heard testimony from Allie Phillips, a mom and activist who is a Democratic candidate for the Tennessee General Assembly.

Phillips went viral sharing her experience crowdsourcing funds to seek an abortion at 20 weeks out of state after her fetus, Miley, was diagnosed with a number of anomalies incompatible with life.

“We had to quickly figure out how to afford it all. We didn’t have thousands of dollars sitting in our bank account,” said Phillips. “Imagine having to rely on the goodness of strangers to stay healthy for your daughter, your husband, your family.”

Phillips said she was disappointed that Kennedy knew there would be a mother at the hearing who had to make the difficult decision to terminate a 20-week pregnancy and yet still brought the visual aid.

It was especially difficult, she said after the hearing, because she lost Miley one year ago.

Still, some shared pathways emerged amid the terse back-and-forth between senators and the witnesses.

Grassley touted work on his bipartisan Medicaid bill with Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., that would build and expand Medicaid maternal health programs.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., asked the two Republican witnesses — Leslie Ford, adjunct fellow for the Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility at the American Enterprise Institute, and Tamra Call, executive director of Obria Medical Clinic — about a shared priority of protecting safety net programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, otherwise known as WIC.

Both Ford and Call said they support the program and a push for national labor and delivery standards under Medicaid, which Stabenow said she and Grassley have been longtime advocates for.

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