Historical essay
Personhood Politics: Decoding Alabama’s Reproductive Discourse

Personhood Politics: Decoding Alabama’s Reproductive Discourse

Arianna Injeian

In 2020, several frozen embryos were accidentally destroyed in a Mobile, Alabama clinic. This event catalyzed numerous lawsuits and eventually reached the Alabama Supreme Court, which, in February 2024, granted embryos “personhood.” The Court, borrowing language from the Dobbs decision and Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act, ruled that the embryos were “extrauterine children.”

The ruling sent shockwaves throughout Alabama. In-vitro fertilization (IVF) services were promptly halted throughout the state, with embryos stored at clinics under tight lockdown. Patients with scheduled IVF procedures had to revert to a state of limbo as clinics scrambled to decipher the implications of this ruling and safeguard their practices. Advocacy days were quickly initiated as intended parents, fertility providers, and allies flooded the Montgomery State House to make their voices heard. Affected patients had the opportunity to tell their stories to legislators and share the intense impact that the recent ruling had on their abilities to realize parenthood.

Vagueness surrounding the notion of “personhood” dates back to ancient Greece, where figures like Hippocrates and Aristotle debated the beginnings of human life and the ethics of abortion.[1]  The Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in June 2022 is the most recent chapter in those debates, especially around terms like “personhood,” “viability,” and “conception.” Lawmakers and policymakers have yet to reach a consensus on these terms, leaving reproductive autonomy vulnerable to restrictive regulations and political agendas, particularly in Alabama. Currently, abortion is fully banned in 14 states, including Alabama, which enacted a trigger ban immediately following the Dobbs decision. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade has created an environment of fear and uncertainty for those seeking or providing abortion care, with ambiguous “personhood” language paving the way for further restrictions on assisted reproductive technologies like IVF.

As a medical anthropology PhD student at The University of Alabama, my research on reproductive technologies in Alabama and Argentina naturally led me to attend two advocacy days in Montgomery following the “embryo personhood” decision. My dedication to participant observation, combined with my advocacy for IVF and reproductive health, allowed me to witness firsthand the experiences of affected patients, their supporters, and other stakeholders. The days were highly organized by leadership from Fight For Alabama Families (FFAF), a group working to protect fertility care in Alabama, who guided us into the State House and helped us communicate with legislators and members of the public. Among the participants were high school student interns and IVF patients.

The students at the first advocacy day were conducting mini interviews with IVF advocates, trying to learn more about what we were there to accomplish, our views on the recent ruling, and what role we think the government should play in regulating reproductive healthcare. During one of my six mini interviews, two young men asked me, “Do you believe that IVF is murder?” Although I was taken aback by the abruptness of the question and initially tempted to provide an inflammatory response, I engaged with the students to understand their baseline knowledge of IVF and to discern what led them to the question they posed. I realized through my probing questions that these young people lacked an even basic understanding of reproduction, let alone the intricacies of a complex technology like IVF. They were uninformed about the process of menstruation, aspects of fertility, and how the process of both physiological pregnancy and assisted reproduction occur. Unfortunately, my conversations with state legislators revealed that their understanding of the issue was about on par with that of the high school students.

It became clear to me that both the legislators and the students have latched onto sensationalized buzzwords like “murder” that support the “personhood” language we are trying so hard to fight. This language is deeply affecting those seeking treatment. I interviewed an IVF patient from that first advocacy day who had gone through an unsuccessful embryo transfer just days before the state Supreme Court ruling. During our conversation, she told me that in response to the state’s ruling, she was no longer interested in creating new embryos in Alabama given the murky legislative landscape. As she copes with the uncertainty of her reproductive future, she feels frustrated by how her home state is framing IVF, explaining to me that the embryos are “not going to turn out to be anything for me. They’re not a person, I really wish they were…people who’ve been through IVF know better than anybody that an embryo is not a person, it is only the potential to be one.” Our conversation illuminated the life-altering impact that this “personhood” language has on the lived realities of intended parents.

A white building in the Classical style surrounded by green trees.
The Alabama State Capitol. (Courtesy Jimmy Emerson on Flickr)

In response to the myriad of advocacy efforts, Senator Tim Melson (R) brought forward Senate Bill (SB) 159, which would protect providers and recipients of IVF-related services from civil and criminal liability. The second, smaller advocacy day allowed our group of seven advocates to engage directly with legislators about the impending vote on the proposed bill. While groups like FFAF supported the bill because it would immediately restore IVF services in the state, our concern came from the absence of “personhood” language in the bill. Some legislators wanted to propose amendments that would clearly define “personhood,” but debates over such amendments would have delayed the vote. In the end, just a short week after our initial advocacy efforts, SB 159 was passed and signed by Governor Kay Ivey (R).

There was resounding support from the Republican legislators who believed that passing SB 159 was the right move to ensure that Alabama families could keep growing. More than one Representative made comments that there was “nothing more ‘pro-life’ than supporting IVF.” However, from the perspective of advocates like myself and FFAF, comprehensive reproductive health, which encompasses contraception, abortion care, assisted reproduction, and more, stems from the ability for an individual to make decisions over their own body and reproductive future, to have the choice. Feminist scholar Rosalind Petchesky said it best as she paraphrased Karl Marx in her article on reproductive freedom: “Women make their own reproductive choices, but they do not make them just as they please; they do not make them under conditions which they themselves create but under social conditions and constraints which they, as mere individuals, are powerless to change.”[2] I personally found the “pro-life” rhetoric surrounding what seems to me like an unequivocal matter of choice to be profoundly unsettling.

Despite Republicans’ performative concern for “life,” SB 159 reflects a “pro-birth” sentiment, revealing contradictions in their language. The rhetoric of being “pro-life” was used to support IVF access, yet this language ignored the diverse needs of those not present at the advocacy days. Over both events, the advocates were predominantly white, cis/het, and upper middle class. The bill did not consider low-income individuals, rural Alabamians, single parents, or queer persons who also have reproductive healthcare needs. Most legislators saw only those at the State House as accessing IVF services, overlooking others who also deserve reproductive autonomy.This IVF case presents a fascinating and disturbing crossroads as Alabama conservatives grapple with a seemingly “pro-life” process that also supports autonomous decision making around family planning.

The passage of SB 159 can be claimed as a victory for both sides of the Alabama State Legislature because it enabled IVF services to resume throughout the state. Enabling clinics to start IVF again is without a doubt a small win for this issue. But my concern about embryo “personhood” language remains. Representative Chris England (D) of Tuscaloosa aptly described the bill as forcing the state to be “morally ambiguous and intellectually dishonest” because it evades our longstanding debate surrounding “personhood.” Many others are questioning what’s next, like House minority leader Anthony Daniels (D) of Huntsville, who has been championing protecting access to birth control: “They’re coming for everything, and our freedom, as we know it, is in jeopardy.” And amidst all of this legislative turmoil, the Mobile clinic at the center of the case has announced that it will close its doors at the end of 2024 in light of litigation concerns.

The overturning of Roe vs. Wade was a shock to our nation, placing the onus of defining things like “personhood” on state legislatures. And without concretely defined, agreed-upon concepts, clinics, providers, and patients are left in reproductive purgatory. Without a clear definition, how can we be sure IVF services are truly protected? Embryos being granted “personhood” status in our state without resolution of the language issue raises legitimate concerns about the future. How will this discourse evolve, and what will be its enduring impact?


  1. Patsioti, Joanna. 1998. “Aristotelian Perspectives on Social Ethics.” In Theoretical Ethics. Boston, MA. https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/TEth/TEthPats.htm.
  2. Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack. 1980. “Reproductive Freedom: Beyond ‘A Woman’s Right to Choose.’” Signs 5 (4): 661–85.

Featured image caption: A microscopic view of IVF. (Public Domain)

Arianna Injeian is a dual degree PhD/MPH student at the University of Alabama with a focus on medical anthropology. Her work examines the complexities of assisted reproductive technologies and egg donation as influenced by socio-cultural, political, and economic factors. Arianna's dissertation will take a comparative approach to examining the landscape of assisted reproduction in both Alabama and Argentina. Outside of academia, Arianna is also a trained fertility and abortion doula.

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