In 1981, the IVF and Anti-Abortion Movements Collided

In Depth

On December 28th, 1981, Elizabeth Jordan Carr was born to Judith and Roger Carr in Virginia’s Norfolk General Hospital, making her the first baby conceived via in vitro fertilization in the United States. A week later, the New York Times reported, the family was released from the hospital to return home to Boston.

That was the first time the public had heard about the Carrs. “The Carrs’ identity was not disclosed during Mrs. Carr’s pregnancy,” the Times reported on January 5, 1982, “but the couple happily allowed their names to be be [sic] used after Elizabeth’s birth by Caesarean section, saying that ‘we wanted to inform the 600,000 people that in the same circumstance that there is still hope and not to give up.’”

It arguably did that; not a year later, at least seven other families successfully had babies conceived via IVF. Today, fertility treatments are increasingly common in the U.S. But although the Carrs chose not to go public until Elizabeth was both, her birth followed a tumultuous year—one in which the country was grappling with the idea of science aiding the reproductive process at nearly the same time that anti-abortion lawmakers began arguing that life begins at the point of conception.

On March 1, 1980, the first clinic in the U.S. specializing in IVF opened in Norfolk, Virginia, according to the Times. In its first year, the clinic did not have much success; a spokesperson told the Times, in its one-year follow-up to the opening that the clinic had not yet “had a pregnancy,” although “some 5,000 women” had expressed interest. Elizabeth would be born about nine months later.

But almost at the same time, anti-abortion senators began to push for a bill that would empower states to prosecute those who sought out abortions for murder, arguing that human life begins at the point of conception. The bill was a workaround to Roe v. Wade, which the Supreme Court had ruled on eight years earlier. On April 19, 1981, the Times interviewed Senator Orrin Hatch about the bill, who said, “I’m strongly committed to the ‘right to life’ effort and the need in Congress to overturn Roe.

Hatch largely skirted questions about how the bill would apply to cases of rape and the use of the morning-after pill, and when asked how it relates to the advent of IVF, he said that was something to worry about once the bill was passed:

Q. With the advances in biological sciences, such as test tube conceptions, we’ve blurred the point at which life starts. Doesn’t this law create a morass of questions about defining that point?
A. No, S.158 would resolve that ambiguity. It says life begins at conception.
Q. Would life include something created in a lab?
A. That would have to be determined under this statute as it is written; I presume that it probably would.

The potential implications are obvious. If parents elect IVF to have more control over the reproductive process, are they also criminally at fault if the process doesn’t work? “The question of embryo rights had become critical because the procedure that made possible birth of the first ‘test-tube’ baby” could possibly lead to the discarding of a newly fertilized egg that, under microscopic examination, appeared to be developing abnormality. Thus the issue parallels the debate on abortions,” the Times wrote on May 4th, 1981.

That IVF would be criticized in the ’80s should come as no surprise—in 1982, the Vatican condemned the use of IVF and anti-abortion groups criticized egg donation to aid the spread of IVF. But the way in which is the procedure intersected with the debate on abortion rights is telling. The 1981 bill, or the Hatch Amendment, was not the first nor would it be the last attempt by Congress to pass a law that would essentially overturn Roe. But in the early 1980s, Hatch’s views and comments cast a dubious light on IVF, a procedure that was developed, ostensibly, to make it easier for people who wanted to carry children. But in the eyes of the “right to life” movement, such medical advances stood on the same treacherous ground as a person finding themselves pregnant and wishing to terminate the pregnancy; both run counter to the idea that reproduction and carrying pregnancies to term are natural and correct.

1981, then, was a snapshot of two parallel movements—and shows the lengths to which those in power, like Hatch, have historically gone to criminalize pregnant people and attempt to effectively outlaw abortion, even under Roe.

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