Imagine you’re a veteran who was critically wounded while serving your country. You’ve returned home, struggled through rehab, and now, finally, you’re ready to get on with your life and start a family. Your injury has made it difficult to conceive the old-fashioned way, so you turn to in vitro fertilization—only to discover that the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t cover the treatment. In fact, it has explicitly banned coverage for almost a quarter-century.
This has been the plight of too many veterans and their families, as service members returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with injuries to their spinal cords and pelvic areas—and found that without coverage for IVF, they couldn't afford to have desperately wanted children.
This week, however, it looked like these veterans were finally going to catch a break.
This past February, Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, introduced The Women Veterans and Families Health Services Act of 2015, which would have ended the 23-year ban. Since then, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had been working together behind closed doors to come to a bipartisan compromise that would allow Murray’s bill to pass. The bill did not offer blanket access to IVF for military personnel, but rather made IVF available specifically for veterans who were injured in a way that would render them infertile.
Late Tuesday night, however, Republicans on the Veterans Affairs Committee drafted a series of amendments to be added to the bill that, among other things, would have prevented these veterans' embryos from being screened for potential abnormalities—and dramatically limited the number of facilities that could provide families with fertility services.
Specifically, the bill would have prevented funds from going to any health care provider, medical facility, or cryogenic storage facility that directly or indirectly participates in the harvesting of fetal tissue, cells, or organs—basically, the vast majority of places that offer and support fertility treatment—in a direct strike against women’s health care in the name of validating the recent undercover “sting” videos released by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress and the group's unfounded claim that Planned Parenthood is “harvesting” fetal organs from abortions and selling them for profit.
And so, in an unanticipated move, Murray called for her own bill to be pulled from a Senate vote on Wednesday, not wanting it to be used as a political weapon against women’s health. "Just a few Republicans, with just a few poison pill amendments, have turned a bipartisan effort to help wounded veterans into a partisan effort to attack women’s health care," Murray said in an address to her colleagues. "This is shameful."
Where did the ban come from?
The VA's ban on fertility treatment coverage predates the kind of debilitating injuries military personnel have suffered from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) since September 11—incidents that often result in injuries that prevent victims from being able to conceive without the use of assisted reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization.
The reason behind the ban’s origins is murky, though the Washington Post reported in May that Congress adopted it "as the result of conservative opposition to assisted reproduction and concern that some fertilized embryos might be discarded."
Barbara Collura, president of the non-profit fertility association RESOLVE, added that the ban was put into place when IVF was still new. “There was perhaps discomfort with the technology,” she told Fusion. "You have to think back to what was going on with IVF then,” she said. Both the medical community and the general public had just been introduced to the procedure.
More recently, however, the bill has been stymied by anti-abortion Republicans who have crusaded against Americans' tax dollars supporting any process that could result in the potential creation of and then destruction of an embryo—something that is always a potential circumstance in IVF.
Supporting embryos over wounded veterans
Had Murray’s bill come to a vote and passed on Wednesday, it would have been the first time ever that Congress has sanctioned in vitro fertilization. It would have also allowed couples like Alex and Holly Dillman, who shared their heartbreaking story with the Washington Post in May, to have a better chance at becoming parents.
Holly was going to college and working at Starbucks when she met Alex, a regular customer who had just gone into active duty from the reserves. “I guess he liked what he saw,” Holly joked.
In an attempt to get to know her better, Alex took a job at Starbucks. The couple fell in love and were married in March of 2008. Alex deployed that summer. It was during his second deployment, in February 2011, Holly told Fusion, “when the blast happened.”
Alex had been on patrol in the middle on the night when his vehicle was hit by an IED. Being the squad leader, Alex was riding in the front of the vehicle—right where the explosive hit. He sustained multiple fractures to both legs, an orbital fracture in his face and facial lacerations, and also received a spinal fusion, paralyzing him from the mid-chest down. As a result, Alex and Holly are unable to conceive on their own.
“When Alex was first injured, we were in a little bit of denial,” Holly said. “It was like, Okay, you’re going to get up and be able to walk again!” But the longer his recovery dragged on, “we saw how extensive the injury was and got to see what was realistic."
Slowly, they came to terms with the injury's impact on their desire to build a family. “We realized we wouldn’t be able to have kids naturally,” Holly said. The couple assumed the VA would help them get the assistance they needed—until someone casually mentioned the ban.
While the Department of Defense offers six IVF cycles to couples in which an active duty service member spouse has been wounded in a way that impacts fertility, the benefit does not apply once the service member has retired—and as a result, it is hardly useful to a wounded soldier focused on recovery.
By the time Alex and Holly learned about the DoD's IVF benefits, Alex’s recovery had been going on for over a year. They were "both just thinking about getting better. How is Alex going to work? How is Alex going to drive a car? How is he going to do all the things he did prior to his injury," Holly said. "It was always a part of our life plan to have a child together—but you have priorities."
It is an ironic twist that a medical procedure intended to create pregnancy is so vilified by activists who claim to be "pro-life." Worse, it is an aggressive statement to wounded veterans that their lives are less important than the potential life of an embryo.
Murray’s bill is one that should have been voted into law—and in a bipartisan way. But the GOP’s commitment to restricting women’s ability to make their own health care decisions took precedent. A backdoor attack on abortion rights has become a direct strike on those who have served their country and wish for nothing more than to have a child.
(It should also be noted that many embryos created—naturally or in a lab—are not viable.)
“This is only the latest example in a series of attempts by extreme politicians to score political points in their effort to ban access to safe and legal abortion at the expense of women's health and now our nation's veterans," Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement to Fusion.
What's the fetal tissue amendment really about?
The Republicans' fetal tissue amendment reflects a right-wing agenda that is not only an attack on abortion rights, but on women's rights and the future of medicine.
As we now know, Planned Parenthood, like many private physicians and medical establishments, allows women undergoing abortions to elect through informed consent to donate the fetal tissue that results from an abortion. This tissue is then used for medical research and treatment.
Fetal tissue donation is not illegal and has fueled some of the most critical medical research in this country for almost a century. While the sale of fetal tissue is illegal, full versions of the Center for Medical Progress' undercover videos expressly show Planned Parenthood representatives discussing the federally-mandated fees associated with the collection and transport of donated specimens.
Meanwhile, the fetal tissue amendments that Republican lawmakers hoped to tack onto Murray’s bill would have a significant impact on the universities, hospitals, and health care providers that work with the VA by preventing them from receiving funding. None of this, however, has anything to do with IVF itself.
“IVF is about creating an embryo with a sperm and an egg and transferring it to a woman’s uterus, and that’s it,” said Collura. “It’s about transferring that embryo and doing everything possible to optimize the opportunity for pregnancy.” In other words, IVF has nothing to do with fetal tissue donation and even less to do with abortion.
Murray has vowed to keep fighting on behalf of veterans. "I know some Republicans are trying to use this latest issue as just one more opportunity to roll back the clock and take away women’s health care options," the senator said Wednesday. "We can have that fight—we’ve had it many times before—but don’t pull veterans into the middle of it."
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.