The ART of Antiabortion Activism
From the Series: After Roe
The conservative majority’s ruling in the US Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization to rescind fifty years of constitutionally protected abortion rights implicates far more than abortion. According to dissenting Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor, abortion “does not stand alone” because it is “linked to other settled freedoms involving bodily integrity, familial relationships, and procreation.”
Assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), which involves the making and manipulation of human embryos in labs for procreative purposes, have come into the spotlight of concern. While existing state-based abortion restrictions appear to exclude IVF, a spate of policies following Dobbs that use the language of “life at conception” could include IVF embryos with major consequences for the field of reproductive medicine. Concerns about the regulatory future for ARTs arise in a national context, where antiabortion strategists have successfully secured legal rights for fetuses in established pregnancies and persist in radical efforts to redefine human life as beginning at fertilization, both in and out of uteruses.
Antiabortion activists attempted their radical strategy in the Dobbs case. On July 27, 2021, Hannah, John, and Marlene Strege filed an amicus curiae brief with the US Supreme Court in support of Mississippi’s “Gestational Age Act” banning abortion after fifteen-weeks gestation. The Streges’ filing was one of 80 submitted from “pro-life” advocacy groups, legal societies, medical associations, state and federal legislators, and individual supporters of Mississippi’s ban. Drawing on their experience as the first family to be forged through “embryo adoption,” the Streges’ filing appealed to the nation’s highest court “for the lives of all embryos in or out of the womb.”
Launched twenty-five years ago by John and Marlene Strege, another couple, and a Christian adoption agency, embryo adoption is an assisted reproduction technique currently facilitated by eight US-based programs and used predominantly by White infertile Christian couples. It coordinates the donation of frozen embryos unused after IVF to recipients who are willing to parent any children born from procedures that involve transferring embryos into recipients’ uteruses. While sharing features with fertility clinic-based embryo donation programs, embryo adoption uses “pro-life” rhetoric and the requirements common in conventional adoption to guide the process. More than a novel form of family-making, embryo adoption serves as a strategic arm of the US antiabortion movement’s long-standing political effort to redefine embryos and fetuses as legal persons. The Streges’ appeal to the Supreme Court is an exemplar.
The brief opens with introductions of their daughter, Hannah, as “a former IVF frozen embryo,” and John and Marlene as “adoptive parents of the first ‘adopted’ frozen embryo in America.” It argues that states ought to be allowed to enforce “all ‘pre-viability’ prohibitions on elective abortions,” which would enshrine in law their absolutist view that “life begins at fertilization.” The “modern scientific advancement called in vitro fertilization,” they claim, has moved the line of viability “all the way back to fertilization.” As a “former frozen embryo person,” they maintain that “Hannah’s life proves life begins at fertilization” and therefore all embryos, made in vitro or gestating in utero, deserve protection under the law. Their approach mirrors antiabortion efforts, beginning months after the US Supreme Court legalized abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, to amend the constitutional definition of person to include “all human beings, including their unborn offspring at every stage of their biological development, irrespective of age, health, function, or condition of dependency.”
The brief features photographs from Hannah’s baby book, beginning with images of IVF embryos. A fertility clinic photo of the three embryos transferred into Marlene’s uterus is titled “Hannah and Two Siblings Viable Outside the Womb Day of Thaw.” Naming Hannah as pictured in this image and claiming all the embryos as viable aim to substantiate their claim that frozen embryos meet Roe’s viability criteria for “living outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.” Further images include Hannah swaddled as a newborn, at eight-months-old, and in her college graduation gown. Ordering Hannah’s story from in vitro embryos, to newborn, to girl, to adult woman follows the antiabortion playbook of likening fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses to born children. The Streges ended their appeal with a prayer that “this Court find that viability occurs upon fertilization.”
The discursive work in the Streges’ brief illustrates how the US antiabortion movement has gained traction in recent decades by interfacing with ARTs. Although IVF has not been a political target of antiabortion advocacy since it became a mainstream industry in the 1980s, it has provided an ideal space for expanding the reach of “pro-life” discourse and political influence of the US Christian Right. For instance, program staff use discursive strategies common among antiabortion advocates to transform IVF embryos into “frozen orphans” in need of “parents” and “homes.” In turn, embryo adoption now plays a strategic role in antiabortion politics by providing “faces” of embryo personhood as beginning “at fertilization”—like Hannah Strege’s.
Notably, however, embryo adoption spokespersons reject the idea that the practice is a threat to abortion rights. During a 2008 ethnographic interview I conducted, one program founder described embryo adoption to me as “a movement to remind people that life begins at conception” but insisted that it was not a “devious plan by the far right, the Christian radicals, to overturn Roe v. Wade”: “Those who think we’re using adoption language because we think it will form the foundation that will overturn Roe v. Wade, or that it is going to help somebody in some state pass a personhood amendment, isn’t dealing with reality. In terms of a court case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, or ballot initiatives or personhood amendments, who cares what you call an embryo or an exchange of embryos from one family to another?”
John Strege makes a similar claim in his memoir: “Not once throughout this entire process, from its inception in 1997 to President Bush’s [human embryonic stem cell] veto in 2006, had we ever heard anyone on the embryo adoptions side—publicly or privately, public figures or private citizens—ever suggest that overturning Roe v. Wade was the endgame or even a means by which to weaken the abortion industry. This was a fabrication by the media” (2020, 145). And yet, the Streges explicitly leveraged their position as the first family forged through embryo adoption to advocate “for the lives of all embryos in or out of the womb” in a case that did, in fact, overturn Roe v. Wade. While we can doubt the sincerity of their claims, we ought to believe John’s statement that overturning Roe is not their endgame. As Supreme Court Justices rightly warn, the impacts of Dobbs reach far beyond the realm of abortion.
The IVF embryo—held outside of bodies, in cold storage, and between social categories—has proven to be a potent figure for amplifying the US antiabortion movement’s goals. Framing the IVF embryo as available for adoption dovetails with the movement’s opportunism within maternal-fetal medicine, safe haven laws concerning infant relinquishment, and neonatal intensive care units—all spaces where pregnancy is an elemental condition for pro-life politics today. Critical consideration of embryo adoption teaches us that pregnancy is not a necessary precondition for pro-life politics to flourish—a fact that could inform global feminist solidarities when strategizing forms of resistance to antiabortion activity around the world. As we take stock of how abortion foes successfully realized a post-Roe landscape, we ought to keep in mind lessons from their inroads in ARTs that abortion rights do not stand alone as they are inextricably linked to countless other freedoms held dear.
 Gratitude to Becca Howes-Michel for drawing this filing to my attention!
 These insights are based on ethnographic research presented in my forthcoming book with NYU Press on the reproductive politics of white saviorism in embryo adoption.
Strege, John. 2020. A Snowflake Named Hannah: Ethics, Faith, and the First Adoption of a Frozen Embryo. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.