Rutgers’ Marsh details ‘uneasy peace’ around IVF, but not worried about access in N.J. — yet

Rutgers Health faculty member: ‘New Jersey has a long track record of supporting reproductive technology’

Last week’s ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court, which ruled that frozen embryos are people under the law, sent shockwaves through the medical and legal communities.

Margaret Marsh, a historian and professor at Rutgers University, was not surprised.

Marsh, who is also a core faculty member at Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers Health, said the fight against in vitro fertilization — commonly known as IVF — has been around for decades.

Margaret Marsh. (Rutgers University)

“The anti-abortion movement strongly opposed IVF in the early days,” she said. “In 1979, a year after the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, a coalition of anti-abortion organizations denounced IVF in an ad in the New York Times as a ‘morally abhorrent’ technology, and they successfully thwarted all efforts to allow federal funding for any research using human embryos.”

Marsh and gynecologist Wanda Ronner are the authors of the 2019 book, “The Pursuit of Parenthood: Reproductive Technology from Test-Tube Babies to Uterus Transplants,” a history of assisted reproduction from the early days of IVF to the technologies of the present. The book traces the battle.

“Over the years, the anti-abortion movement gradually accepted some reproductive technologies, as long as no embryos were destroyed during their use,” she said. “But the peace it made with the new technologies was always an uneasy peace.”

That peace is now broken.

The future of IVF, one of several techniques available to help people with fertility problems have a baby, is now in question.

The treatment, which can be very expensive and is not readily available, is now becoming harder to find.

For now, having access to IVF treatment in New Jersey remains strong, Marsh said.

“New Jersey has a progressive stance on assisted reproduction,” she said. “Since 2001, the state has mandated that health insurers provide coverage for infertility treatment, including IVF and including cryopreservation (embryo freezing) — and the use of donor gametes.”

If the Alabama ruling is limited to Alabama, New Jersey would not be affected, Marsh said.

“New Jersey has a long track record of supporting reproductive technology,” she said. “I think the larger issue is what could happen if the Alabama ruling ever became enshrined in national legislation or a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

“It seems farfetched to believe that could happen, but Roe was overturned, and many Americans believed that Roe was settled law — until it wasn’t.”

As confident as Marsh is, the fact remains, changes are happening in Alabama. Already.

Earlier this week, Alabama’s largest hospital paused IVF treatments as providers and patients across the state scrambled to assess the impact of a court ruling that said frozen embryos are the legal equivalent of children.

“We are saddened that this will impact our patients’ attempt to have a baby through IVF,” the system said in a statement.

It is unclear how the ruling will impact New Jersey — if at all.

First lady Tammy Murphy, who has been a strong proponent of maternal health in the past six years, said the decision — in the aftermath of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — is another attempt to restrict women’s health rights.

“This reprehensible decision will undoubtedly have sweeping implications for fertility treatments and modern health care for millions of people hoping to start families,” she said.