Octuplet mom Nadya Suleman already had six children after five successful in vitro fertilization treatments, but one big dilemma kept gnawing at her: What was she supposed to do with her six frozen embryos?
"Those were my children," Suleman told NBC. "I couldn't live with the fact that if I had never used them . . . that I didn't allow these little embryos to live or give them an opportunity to grow."
Now, anti-abortion groups in Georgia are using Suleman's story as a rallying call to enact stricter rules to govern the $3-billion fertility industry, which has some doctors worrying that the octuplets may be used as a pretense to pass laws restricting abortion rights.
Two other states, California and Missouri, are offering laws that critics say might create a confusing patchwork of regulations.
The Missouri bill seeks to adopt industry standards as law. The California law gives the state Medical Board oversight of fertility clinics.
But the Georgia bill, called the Ethical Treatment of Human Embryos Act, defines an embryo as a "biological human being" and prohibits the destruction of frozen embryos -- wading into a loaded debate over abortion rights and embryonic stem cells.
It is backed by the Georgia Right to Life organization and drafted by lawyers from the Bioethics Defense Fund, an anti-abortion, anti-stem-cell group.
The bill would set limits on the number of embryos that can be transferred to a woman to two or three. In Suleman's case, she said six embryos were transferred, far above the number recommended for a 33-year-old woman using younger eggs. With fewer embryos, the chances of multiple births decreases, along with the need for selective reduction.
"I want to make sure what happened in California doesn't happen in Georgia," said state Sen. Ralph Hudgens, a Republican from Hull, Ga. "There is nothing in this law to limit abortions. I can't believe that people are reading that into it."
The additional provisions, though, particularly the section that prohibits the destruction of embryos, has alarmed doctors and fertility industry groups. Louisiana is the only state with a similar law that prohibits discarding human embryos. The president of Georgia Right to Life issued a statement saying the bill would protect embryos as "living human beings and not property."
"The Georgia bill uses the octuplets as an excuse to pass an extreme anti-abortion measure introduced and promoted by and for Georgia Right to Life," said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine."
Dr. Arthur Wisot, a Redondo Beach-based fertility specialist, agreed, saying it could "set fertility treatment back to the Dark Ages."
On Thursday, lawmakers sent the bill to a subcommittee for further review. If a compromise isn't reached and it doesn't move out of committee by Monday afternoon, the bill will be held up until next year, though Hudgens said it is far from dead.
Unless the industry is careful, the country could end up with a mishmash of policies that forces patients to doctor shop from state to state in search of laws most favorable to their needs, said Jesse Reynolds, policy analyst for the Center for Genetics and Society. The group called this week for congressional hearings, noting that federal oversight is the best solution.
"I firmly believe that we can rein in the fertility business," Reynolds said. "It's a $3-billion industry that's completely outside of regulatory control. Bring it in, draw lines that we can agree on, while protective [of] reproductive rights and further encouraging reproductive health and reproductive justice."
The industry has long claimed that its voluntary guidelines are adequate. Doctors frequently cite their own efforts to decrease occurrences of high-order, multiple births.
In 1997, the percentage of in vitro fertilization procedures resulting in triplets or higher was 13.7%. By 2007, and by its own self-regulation, the industry average was down to less than 2%, said Dr. Robert Schaaf, the Missouri Republican who introduced legislation to make industry standards into state law.
Schaaf said that although the American Society for Reproductive Medicine standards have resulted in more success and less danger, laws are still needed.
"What if a woman says, 'I want to implant 10 embryos in there?' " Schaaf said. "I think it is within the realm of the state to make sure that doctors don't participate in things that are harmful to people. . . . To purposefully get pregnant with eight babies, is that something that should be a right? I would argue no."