A report on the PBS NewsHour this week brought to our attention an issue that we had previously overlooked. The report, which can be viewed here, concerned the inability of the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) to pay for in vitro fertilization (IVF) for veterans who have suffered wounds that make it impossible for them to conceive children any other way.
The NewsHour report focused on one particular couple, Jason and Rachel Hallett. Jason is a former Marine Corporal who lost two legs and an arm to an IED while on a patrol in Afghanistan. Despite his grievous wounds, Jason has made a more complete recovery than most of us would imagine possible and is studying to become a financial planner. But he has one more obstacle to the normal family life for which he yearns. As Jason described it for the NewsHour:
One of the pieces [of shrapnel] had actually connected itself to one of my testicles. And so I now have to take testosterone injections basically to get me back to normal. And with that, one of the side effects is, it basically kills the sperm off.
Remarkably, IVF treatments hold the promise of Jason and Rachel being able to have children. That process, however, is expensive, typically costing $12,000 to $13,000 per try, with more than one try often required. And unlike other medical treatments, the VA is barred by a 1992 law from paying for such treatments. Jason and Rachel are bearing the cost themselves, but many other veterans and their spouses will lack the required resources and determination.
Last year, Senator Patty Murray had introduced a bill to authorize payment for IVF treatments for wounded veterans. The bill had ten co-sponsors, including one Republican, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, but it was blocked by Republicans on the Veterans Affairs Committee. Senator Murray, interviewed on the NewsHour, indicated that opposition to the bill was said to be based primarily on concerns about cost. The cost would, in fact, be substantial. There are an appalling number of veterans, estimated to be as many as 1,800, in need of such treatment, and it has been estimated that the the total cost might approach $600 million over ten years. The story, however, is more complicated. The NewsHour reporter, William Brangham, explained:
Several sources told the NewsHour that these concerns over IVF apparently come from pro-life organizations who object to the treatments. These groups argue that, because some of the embryos created or stored during IVF sometimes get destroyed, IVF is then similar to abortion. We reached out to the main pro-life groups to talk about their concerns, but they all declined our requests [for comment].
Looking further into the matter, it appeared that here was a further issue not mentioned on the NewsHour. Specifically, the Murray bill had also become entangled in last summer’s furor over Planned Parenthood and its handling of fetal tissue. A July 22 article in The Washington Post entitled “The Planned Parenthood Controversy may have killed a veterans bill,” reported that Senator Murray had withdrawn her bill. According to the article:
Murray said she has asked that the bill be pulled thanks to proposed amendments from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) — including one that would have, in Tillis’s words, prevented the Department of Veterans Affairs from working with “organizations that take human aborted babies’ organs and sell them.”
As the Post article noted, that was an unmistakable, albeit inaccurate, reference to Planned Parenthood, but it would also have covered other facilities and organizations that provide IVF services.
We believe that the Murray bill deserves bi-partisan support. Whatever one thinks of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a matter of national shame that burdens of those conflicts were painfully borne by a narrow a sliver of the population. We are repeatedly told that the public is “war weary,” but what that really means is that we are weary of seeing and hearing about, and perhaps feeling guilty about, the sacrifices of others. Weary or not, we need to pay our debt to those who did make sacrifices for the rest of us, and most particularly those who will carry the physical consequences of their service for the rest of their lives. The cost of IVF for those who need it because of their wounds, is part of that debt.
Angst over Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue should not be allowed to get in the way. As we have previously pointed out, disturbing as the surreptitious videos may be, there is no evidence that Planned Parenthood broke any law. On the contrary, the use of fetal tissue is not only important to medical research, but is expressly sanctioned by a federal law that was adopted in 1993 after careful study.
Nor should shadowy comparisons of IVF services to abortion be taken seriously. Veterans should have access to services that are readily available to members of the public who need and can afford them. As Senator Murray observed:
[Use of IVF] is a decision each one of these men and woman have to make on their own. And if they decide this is the way that they can have a family and become whole again, that decision should be up to them.
But our country shouldn’t be deciding for one philosophy, if it’s a religious philosophy, a ban on all Americans who served our country in having the ability to have a child.