Amy Coney Barrett, the Trump administration’s supreme court nominee, publicly supported an organization in 2006 that has said life begins at fertilization. It has also said that the discarding of unused or frozen embryos created in the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process ought to be criminalized, a view that is considered to be extreme even within the anti-abortion movement.
The revelation is likely to lead to new questions about how Barrett’s personal views on abortion may not only shape reproductive rights in the US for decades to come if she is confirmed by the Senate, but how her appointment could affect legal rights for women undergoing fertility treatment, as well as their doctors.
In 2006, while Barrett worked as a law professor at Notre Dame, she was one of hundreds of people who signed a full-page newspaper advertisement sponsored by St Joseph County Right to Life, an extreme anti-choice group located in the city of South Bend, which is in the region know as Michiana.
The advertisement, which appeared in the South Bend Tribune, stated: “We, the following citizens of Michiana, oppose abortion on demand and defend the right to life from fertilization to natural death. Please continue to pray to end abortion.”
The statement was signed by Barrett and her husband, Jesse.
In an interview with the Guardian, Jackie Appleman, the executive director of St Joseph County Right to Life, said that the organization’s view on life beginning at fertilization – as opposed to the implantation of an embryo or a fetus being viable – did have implications for in vitro fertilization, which usually involves the creation of multiple embryos.
“Whether embryos are implanted in the woman and then selectively reduced or it’s done in a petri dish and then discarded, you’re still ending a new human life at that point and we do oppose that,” Appleman said, adding that the discarding of embryos during the IVF process was equal to the act of having an abortion.
Asked whether doctors who perform abortion ought to be criminalized, she said: “We support the criminalization of the doctors who perform abortions. At this point we are not supportive of criminalizing the women. We would be supportive of criminalizing the discarding of frozen embryos or selective reduction through the IVF process.”
Appleman said the organization’s views reflected a mission “to create a culture of life and love in which every child is protected by law”.
The White House deputy press secretary, Judd Deere, said in a statement to the Guardian: “As Judge Barrett said on the day she was nominated, ‘A judge must apply the law as written. Judges are not policymakers, and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold.’”
The White House also pointed out that in her role as an appellate court judge in the seventh circuit Barrett had declined in July to stay the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, a white supremacist convicted killer. Barrett’s decision in that case apparently showed a willingness to contradict her personal stated support for all life from “fertilization to natural death”.
Barrett’s public embrace of a strict anti-choice position will nevertheless fuel concerns of progressives and pro-choice Americans about what the 48-year-old judge’s confirmation to the supreme court will mean for abortion rights once conservatives gain a 6-3 majority on the court.
For years, mainstream anti-abortion activists have avoided including discarded embryos created in the in vitro fertilization process in their crusade to protect every embryo, in part because seeking to curtail IVF treatment would be very unpopular. In Alabama, which has passed a near-total ban on abortion, embryos created through IVF are excepted from the law.
But the issue has gained resonance with some fringe groups who have sought to give fertilized eggs a constitutionally protected “right to life”.
Dov Fox, author of Birth Rights and Wrongs: How Medicine and Technology are Remaking Reproduction and the Law, said that if such a movement ever succeeded it could “have the potential to prop up restrictions on fertility treatment”.
“For example, by banning IVF procedures that would involve freezing, destroying or donating for research any embryo a woman doesn’t implant all at once, despite the health risks associated with high-order pregnancies and the hormone drugs required to extract eggs multiple times,” he said.
Pro-choice advocates in South Bend described St Joseph County Right to Life as “extreme”, with a history of supporting “super intimidating” protests at the one facility in South Bend that provides abortion services.
The group was established in 1972 and has said its mission is to save “children, women and men from the devastating effects of abortion and euthanasia”. While it publishes a full-page advertisement every year, to mark the passage of Roe v Wade, Barrett’s name did not appear in any other ads that the Guardian found after 2006.
On its website, Right to Life said it focuses on “outreach, advocacy, education and prayer” and said it experienced a “great victory” in 2015 when it shut down South Bend’s only abortion clinic at the time, “making our community free from an abortion clinic for the first time in decades”. Three years later, a new clinic that provides abortions via pill – up to 10 weeks – was opened following a difficult campaign by pro-choice advocates.
Right to Life has said the opening of the “new abortion business”, a clinic called the Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, had led it to a “doubling up on our efforts”. “We are closely monitoring these threats and executing fierce strategic plan to protect innocent human life at all ends of the spectrum.”
Amy Hagstrom Miller, the president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said the clinic in South Bend had “direct experience” with the Right to Life group, which among other anti-choice groups has used the clinic’s name and likeness in Facebook campaigns to arrange protests.
Clinics like Whole Woman’s Health Alliance face a number of barriers to treating patients in Indiana, Hagstrom Miller said, including rules that force patients who receive a non-surgical abortion to make two visits to a clinic: including for a mandatory ultrasound and counseling. The clinic sees patients only twice a week, and on those days the clinic is inundated with upwards of 70 protesters a day, she said.