Alabama’s IVF Ruling Reveals Deep Ties to This Increasingly Influential Christian Right Movement

The early days of an "extrauterine" child. Image: Tong Guoqing (CC-BY 4.0)

In the Alabama Supreme Court’s IVF ruling that sent shockwaves through the country, the word “God” appears 41 times—and that’s no coincidence. Embryos, according to Alabama’s highest court, are in fact “extrauterine children”—a phrase so dystopian it would make Margaret Atwood shudder. The consequences of this ruling, similar to the fallout from Dobbs, are immediate and devastating: The University of Alabama at Birmingham Health Services, as well as two other IVF providers, paused IVF treatment out of fear of criminal prosecution. The court’s ruling isn’t, of course, based in law, but in religion. And, while it is assuredly Christian nationalist, what we’re seeing in Alabama is the influence of a conservative Christian movement that considers women and pregnant people second-class citizens in the God-given patriarchy and holds that human life begins at conception.

The case in question involved three couples who had sued because a patient at the hospital had accidentally destroyed embryos intended for IVF. The ruling is based on an 1872 law regarding the “unlawful killing of minors,” claiming that under it, embryos should be considered children. The aim of this Christian movement, represented in this case by their avatars on the Alabama Supreme Court, is crystal clear according to lawyer, fellow RD-correspondent, and expert on the legal forces of the broader Christian Right, Andrew Seidel:

The goal is to impose a conservative Christian religion on the entire country through the rule of law, to make it so that the law protects conservative White Christian men but does not bind them, and that the law binds everybody else but does not protect them.

Seidel isn’t surprised that the Christian Right has focused their efforts on the courts, rather than the ballot box:

The reason they’re going about it in this way is because their positions, their policy beliefs, [and] their goals are wildly unpopular. They oppose marriage equality—71% of Americans support it. They want to outlaw abortion—85% of Americans think it should be legal. They want a nation of Christians like them—73% of Americans are more welcoming of religious pluralism. They’d almost certainly like to ban contraception, too, but something like 91% of Americans are in favor of it, right? Their benighted ideas and ideology are wildly unpopular, so they need an anti-democratic institution to impose it on everybody. That is why they have targeted the courts for capture.

At the moment it’s unclear what other consequences may result from the ruling, but it has raised questions, like: What does this mean for women who’ve had their eggs frozen? and: Can women and people with a uterus be forced to have existing embryos implanted? These and similar questions must now be asked, and the answers will likely not be reassuring for pregnant people and women whose bodily autonomy is being taken away. Seidel explains: 

Fetal personhood is a goal of the Christian nationalist movement. It’s a way to control women and anybody else who can become pregnant. It’s a way to police their bodies. It’s a way to relegate them to a second class status as the Christian nationalist ideology dictates. In other words, we’re talking about dragging this country back to a time when conservative White Christian men ruled. That’s the goal of Christian nationalism in America. That is what we are fighting against.  

But while the majority opinion itself is draconian, built upon the Christian Right understanding of life, what drew eyeballs was the concurring opinion of Chief Justice Tom Parker, which is grounded entirely in theology and asserts that any other outcome would have provoked “the wrath of the holy God.”

But Tom Parker isn’t just your average Christian nationalist—he’s been fostering close relationships with some of the most fringe elements of the Christian Right for at least 20 years. Veteran journalist and fellow RD contributor Sarah Posner, who’s been covering this movement for decades, doesn’t mince words when it comes to Parker’s theological affiliation:

He’s a Christian Reconstructionist. There’s no other way of putting it, which means he’s a dominionist. And that was loud and clear in his concurrence. As far as the rest of the opinion, it wasn’t as theocratic oriented as Parker’s was. But just the notion that the justices called fertilized eggs “extra uterine children”—it definitely reflects that belief that the Religious Right believes is rooted in the Bible, that ‘God knew you before you were formed in the womb.’ And that’s a Bible verse that Parker cites in his concurrence. So the whole thing is just suffused with that sort of thinking. But Parker makes it all extremely explicit.

Parker indeed says the quiet part of the underlying theocratic thinking out loud—which, according to Posner, is not completely surprising given his close relationship to Roy Moore, former member (and later Chief Justice) of the Alabama Supreme Court:

I have encountered Tom Parker before. I saw him speak to a Neoconfederate Christian reconstructionist group in 2011 and I wrote about that in a piece about Michelle Bachmann’s legal training for Religion Dispatches.

In the piece, Posner points out that Parker, apart from being Moore’s protegée and friend, also has a knack for citing scripture in his rulings: 

In a dissenting opinion in a 2005 child custody case in which the majority affirmed an award of custody to the child’s grandparents, Parker cited not legal cases or statutes, but rather Romans 13:1-2, for the proposition that “there is no authority except from God.” That, he concluded, dictated that the state should stay out of such family law matters except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

What makes Parker a particularly interesting case for the study of the Christian Right at this moment in time is his continued immersion in the theology of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), which Frederick Clarkson and André Gagné, who have written on the movement extensively for Religion Dispatches, callone of the most important Christian religious and political movements of our time.” Matthew D. Taylor, a scholar of evangelical and pentecostal movements, adds: 

Through an aggressive theological vision called the Seven Mountain Mandate, [New Apostolic Reformation leaders] became increasingly politicized and radicalized around the idea that Christians should control key positions of power and influence in all arenas of society. The NAR networks were at the molten core of Christian support for Donald Trump, creating theologies to justify Trump’s autocratic power grabs. These same networks, after the 2020 election was called for Joe Biden, went into high gear mobilizing Christians to overturn the election, and they were central to organizing Christians to show up and do ‘spiritual warfare’ at the January 6 Capitol Riot.

What does any of this have to do with Tom Parker? The first to note the connection were researchers at Media Matters, who posted a Twitter thread detailing the justice’s connection to NAR circles. Parker’s close personal involvement to the NAR received further scrutiny when a 2023 prayer phone call, which included the Alabama Chief Justice, resurfaced, as reported by Odette Yousef at NPR. This appearance is especially revealing of Parker’s legal and theological philosophy—which are one and the same—as he openly stated his intention to influence Alabama judges to follow his interpretation of Christianity: 

When the judges are restored, revival can flow, so that righteousness and faithfulness are the products. But at least, as chief justice, I can help prepare the soil of the hearts, exposing the judges around the state to the things of God.

According to Taylor, Parker’s language on this prayer call shows that he’s not merely entertaining friendly relations with leaders of the NAR, but that he himself has adopted, at the very least, significant parts of their theology. Taylor sees this as symptomatic of a broader shift in tone and rhetoric on the Christian Right—made possible through Trump’s elevation of charismatic leaders to heights of power they hadn’t previously known:

Charismatic spirituality has become in many ways the lingua franca of all these different groups. I think that Mike Johnson comes across as a non-native speaker of that lingua franca. Roger Stone is a non-native speaker of that language. But he’s trying, right? Tom Parker sounds to me like a native speaker. Lauren Boebert is a native speaker of that stuff… So you do have politicians who’ve grown up in these circles, or judges have grown up in these circles, but then you also have people who are trying to kind of latch on to it.

This tracks with my own experience, both at Robert Jeffress’ First Baptist Dallas and the 2023 Moms for Liberty Conference in Philadelphia—whether it was a bible study designed to address grief in a Southern Baptist church, or speakers railing against LGBTQ “indoctrination” in schools in a hotel ballroom, the language of spiritual warfare was everywhere. 

Parker’s concurring opinion and his previous involvement with NAR figures—which Taylor has traced back as far as 2003—are a window into NAR organizing:

A lot of the NAR stuff happens on a state by state basis. This has been going on for about 20 years now, maybe even 30 years. They’re very invested in having a state by state infrastructure for prayer, intercession and spiritual warfare. This goes back to efforts that Peter Wagner [made] when he was working with Cindy Jacobs in the 1990s. […] One of the things that I found was that Tom Parker in 2003 was already in conversation with some of these NAR folks in Alabama. Because he was the aide to Roy Moore. There’s a relationship there. And they’re saying he is helping kind of bridge the gap between Roy Moore and then our movement, and our mobilization and our prayer and spiritual warfare infrastructure. So for at least 20 years, he’s been in conversation with these folks.

Last year, Parker joined another prayer call with NAR leaders—including the influential Dutch Sheets—which, according to Taylor, reveals the depth of his involvement with NAR theology: 

I found another case where Clay Nash, who convenes the call, says, Oh, yeah, Tom Parker, he’s a friend of Dutch. So, there’s a real relationship here. And Tom Parker who is on this call is saying, I’ve heard these prophecies, some of these prophecies go back to 2003, 2004 about Alabama and judges and Alabama playing a special role in bringing about revival. And I’m trying to convince my fellow judges that they need to participate and also help bring about revival. And he’s referencing Dutch Sheets and Chuck Pierce… He’s on a first name basis with a number of these prophets… He doesn’t casually dip into these things, he’s really tracking these prophets.

Taylor sees Parker’s influence in both the court’s ruling and his concurrence: 

I mean, a state Supreme Court justice is referencing modern charismatic prophets to describe how he understands his role [in] the judiciary. This is very, very extreme. It’s hard to wrap your head around. But then he references the seven mountains and issues this ruling. So he’s acting upon this as well.

On the day the ruling in the Alabama IVF case became public, NAR Prophet Johnny Enlow published an interview with Parker. In the NAR, there are different roles assigned to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, which is referred to as the fivefold ministry.

According to Taylor, the understanding of the fivefold ministry gets openly militant—or at least military—very quickly: 

So Dutch Sheets likes to use a military analogy for this, and he’ll say, if you’re thinking about the fivefold ministry, pastors are kind of either the chefs in the army or the medics—they’re there to help repair people and hold people to take care of the troops. The evangelists, or the teachers are seen as the drill sergeants, who are training the troops. The evangelists are recruiters trying to get more people into the army. And then the prophets are the intelligence. They hear directly from God. They have insight into the spiritual realm, and they can see the enemy. They can see the plans of God. And then they are translating those plans of God into language for the church. And the apostles are the generals.

This whole structure is centered around the idea of spiritual warfare—with these apostle-generals leading the armies of God in an existential battle against the forces of evil:

Sheets will even say: If we only had pastors, the church would never kill anybody—because it’s all about battle. So generals are able to see the entire scope of things and command people and kill. And Sheets would also say: Well, no one would ever die. There would be no martyrs if it was all pastors. This is their critique of pastor-led churches—they are not militant enough. They need this layer of apostolic leadership to mobilize for warfare and then to get people into it.

As an example, Taylor references the belief of Robert Henderson, that he—as a general for God, as an apostle—helped kill Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that his prayers brought about her death:

There’s a video of him, preaching a few days after her death, where he says: “you know, we were in DC a few weeks ago. And we prayed and we helped bring about her death. Because there is a blood altar in America of abortion. And the Supreme Court is what is upholding that blood altar. And so we had to pray to dismantle that blood altar. And we brought about her death. And you ask me, how do I have that authority? Well, we’re a house of prayer, and I’m an apostle, right?” Like he’s understanding himself as a general conducting spiritual warfare, and it contributes to her death. In his mind, he helps kill a Supreme Court justice through prayer. Absolutely. That happens frequently. So it’s a distinct theological universe that they’re operating in.

This kind of thing is possible, according to NAR theology, because while there’s the spiritual front “[t]here’s also the natural front”:

And that’s where the ‘Seven Mountains’ come in. Because the Seven Mountains allow you to do spiritual warfare in real life, right? You are actually conquering spiritual territory or conquering institutions spiritually through your own activism, through your own enactment, and seeking out positions of power or supporting people that you think are going to govern in a Christian way in those different mountains. So they would not say, ‘we killed her.’ They would say, ‘God killed her. Based on our prayers.’  

Parker’s interview with Prophet Enlow drew eyeballs after Media Matters and NBC reported on it. In the piece, Enlow is referred to as an “evangelist”—something he took offense to. According to Taylor, this speaks to the importance of these titles within the NAR:

Enlow said, “well, I’m actually a prophetic leader.” He doesn’t want to quite say he’s a prophet. That’s controversial now. So it’s ‘prophetic leader,’ or ‘apostolic leader.’ They try to move away […] from being quite so rigid about these titles. A lot of it has to do with intra-evangelical politics and respectability.

It’s important to understand what “prophecy” means in the realm of the NAR; it isn’t a prediction of the future, Taylor explains, but a revelation of God’s will to be enacted through spiritual warfare. Avoiding any direct mention of prophecy in his concurrence, Parker opted instead to reference Calvin, Aquinas and Augustine, which, according to religion scholar Julie Ingersoll, “reflects more of the character and tone of the reformed wing of dominionism” which reveals the influence of Christian Reconstructionism on his legal thinking. According to Ingersoll, portions of Parker’s concurrence expose the movement’s loftier theocratic aspirations: 

It’s not just about IVF or even about contraception (though it is about both). Parker’s opinion completely disregards the current legal status of First Amendment Law. He writes as though Alabama is a theocracy, and I suspect that is intentional. The religion clauses are addressed to Congress. ‘Congress shall make no law…’ Initially, they applied only at the federal level and we had established churches in several states. With the 14th Amendment, though, the Constitution limited state power to infringe on the rights of citizens for all US citizens; those rights came to include the rights protected in the religion clauses. 

But Christian nationalists oppose the 14th Amendment jurisprudence and want to see it overturned. Parker’s opinion is an example of nullification—a practice in which individuals on juries or states just disregard legal authority. The only remedy for nullification would be an appeal that someone like Parker might think could lead to overturning the legal status quo. I expect we’ll see a lot more of this with state officials flaunting disregard for federal authority that they see as illegitimate.

Taylor agrees that Parker’s concurrence avoids any direct reference to NAR prophecies, though he still hears echoes of NAR theology: 

It’s kind of a high brow version of this stuff. But the way he frames embryos as life, as children, is very much in line with the way the [NAR] leaders talk about abortion.

In the NAR, Taylor points out, abortion is seen as child sacrifice. This view shapes how NAR leaders like Enlow speak about abortion, and why their position might not seem well thought through: 

This is not a policy idea for these people, it’s a prophecy idea. It’s a theological idea for them. And so, in these circles, when they talk about abortion, they’re not talking about policy. […]The conversation is: Abortion in any form is a form of child sacrifice. That empowers demons to have more control over America. […] 

Abortion to them is an arena of spiritual combat [and] one of the prime drivers of demonic influence in America. Why are they at the Capitol on January 6th? To end abortion. Why are they so fixated on the Supreme Court? They want to end abortion. They don’t just want to change laws to make abortion more difficult. They want to end it. And so to them, if IVF doesn’t work as well as it should ideally, or if there are barriers to people getting IVF, that’s just a consequence of enacting the right restrictions on these things.

And while NAR leaders like Johnny Enlow might not think in clear policy positions, there are enough people on the organized Christian Right who do—and they have a clear goal in mind, says Sarah Posner, which is reflected in the Alabama ruling: 

The Alabama IVF ruling shows us the legal ramifications of the Religious Right’s quest to have it written into law that fertilized eggs are people with civil rights, constitutional rights and human rights. Once you believe that a fertilized egg is a person, then the opposition to IVF follows because you wouldn’t leave a person in a petri dish or in a freezer or in a lab. 

But all of this goes back to their claim that fertilized eggs are people, whether they are fertilized inside somebody’s body or in a lab. This is the result of their attempts, successful in some cases, to pass personhood amendments, just like the one that was passed by voters in Alabama that formed the basis for the opinion. […] But now we’re seeing downstream from abortion that this has all sorts of other legal implications if judges are going to interpret it so literally as the Alabama Supreme Court did.

Given how popular IVF is, the GOP has been in damage control mode (or has attempted to be) since the Alabama ruling dropped, with Florida legislators delaying a fetal personhood bill for fear of public backlash. Republicans like Mike Johnson and Nancy Mace publicly declared their support of IVF—even though they, in many cases, personally tried to advance legislation that would outlaw it. Nikki Haley managed to both profess that “embryos are babies” and that IVF should be legal—a position that makes little sense. Donald Trump has publicly claimed to support IVF, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a memo urging Republican senate candidates to express support for IVF—which stands in direct contrast to the positions expressed in their own policy platform. 

Sarah Posner urges journalists to step up and hold GOP politicians accountable, by asking the necessary follow-up questions: 

They need to be asked much more explicitly about their views on personhood amendments, their views on the opinion itself, on the constitutional amendment that voters passed in Alabama in 2018 that formed the basis for it that was essentially like a personhood amendment to the Alabama Constitution.

Posner sees a dilemma that will be hard to square for Republicans—but only if the press is willing to hold them accountable:

What the Republican candidates are going to run up against is, you know, they know that most people don’t want IVF taken away. Yet, on the other hand, their base strongly believes in this personhood ideology. And so reporters really need to understand that it’s the personhood ideology that’s at the root of the IVF decision. Obviously, the theocratic beliefs are too, but the personhood amendments are based on these theocratic beliefs that a fertilized egg is a human being, entitled to rights. 

Reporters really need to understand that Republicans can’t just run from the Alabama decision, that there are all sorts of other pieces of legislation and constitutional amendments that are pushed by proponents of the personhood ideology. It’s a very common belief among Republicans. Reporters need to make that clear to their readers and listeners and viewers.

Andrew Seidel expects that the Alabama ruling will have a similar effect to the passing of the draconian Texan abortion “bounty-hunter” law, which served as a blueprint for other Red states: 

I do think more states are going to follow suit on this. That’s a virtual certainty. The goal is a national fetal personhood standard, period. Again, with the period, a national fetal personhood standard that applies to every state so that we don’t have abortion sanctuaries, for instance, like California or New York. That’s what they want.

Following the lead of Florida Republicans, some might hold off for the moment on attempts to impose these laws until they believe the public outcry has subsided. In fact, a bipartisan bill to protect IVF was passed overwhelmingly by the Alabama legislature, though it’s just a temporary measure. But any notion that the GOP is broadly supportive of IVF shouldn’t be taken seriously—Republicans just stopped a bill introduced by Democrats that would have established federal protections for IVF. Their goal remains the same: To end bodily autonomy for women and pregnant people, and to impose a Christian, patriarchal theocracy on all Americans.