New legislation proposed in the U.K. will introduce tighter regulations for in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures and potentially decrease the number of IVF-related abortions. The legislation, if passed, will prohibit doctors from implanting more than one embryo at a time in women under 40. Including the statistics for women over 40, who could still receive more than one embryo, this would mean that the chances of multiple pregnancies would drop from 25 percent to 10 percent, decreasing health risks for both fetuses and mothers.

Doctors usually transfer multiple blastocysts—embryos made up of 80 to 100 cells—at a time to a patient's uterus. The Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates U.K. fertility clinics, allows doctors to implant two embryos in women under 40 and three in women over 40. Transferring more than one embryo increases the likelihood of a pregnancy, but it also increases the likelihood of multiple pregnancies.

For mothers, carrying more than one fetus presents an amplified risk of life-threatening conditions such as diabetes and heart attacks. It also presents risks to the fetuses, who are more likely than single babies to be stillborn, to die in the first week of life, to be disabled, or to be born prematurely. "For the children's sake and the mother's sake, there is less risk in putting in one [embryo] at a time," said Dr. David Stevens, family practice physician and chair of the Christian Medical and Dental Association.

Frequently, when more than one transferred embryo implants, doctors recommend that women "selectively reduce" their pregnancies, aborting one fetus in order to give the other one a better chance of survival. If the number of multiple pregnancies could be reduced, doctors would perform fewer selective abortions.

"I'm pleased [the U.K. is] moving toward less risk of multiple pregnancies, which is really what this is about," said Nigel Cameron, director of the Center on Nanotechnology and Society at the Illinois Institute of Technology and president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future. Cameron noted, however, that the legislation "is not out of concern for embryos; it's out of concern for multiple pregnancies and the problems they cause for fetal health as well as maternal health."

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees that the legislation is not about life ethics. "Nothing here is gained in terms of the status of the embryo," he said. "As a matter of fact, this could very well lead to even larger numbers of human embryos that, given the policies of the HFEA, are destined not only for interim storage but for long-term destruction."

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Cameron said proposed legislation springs out of the British government's biomedical policies. "Britain has taken the lead globally with a very liberal approach to what you can do with embryos, but it has a very strong regulatory nature."

While the legislation is beneficial in the sense that the proposed law would decrease health risks for mothers, limiting the number of embryos implanted does have its drawbacks. "The downside of this legislation is that it may preclude a small number of women and their spouses from having children, as it may require more attempts in successive cycles and time may run out before they are successful," said Hessel Bouma III biomedical ethics expert and biology professor at Calvin College.

According to Stevens, although the legislation is likely to pass in the U.K, it is unlikely that a similar measure would be introduced and passed in the U.S. anytime soon. "Our country has this unspoken right to reproduction," he said. "[Most people believe] no one should tell you anything about having your children." Ultimately, Stevens says, this is not a helpful presupposition, as it has prevented the reproductive health industry from governmental regulation.

"The U.S. is more the wild, wild West when it comes to reproductive technologies," said Mohler. "That's why we have reproductive tourism going on with people coming from Europe to the United States, because if they have enough money, they're likely to find just about whatever they're looking for." Europeans come to the States because they know that doctors here are permitted to implant two or three embryos regardless of the age of the eggs.

Many Christians have been quick to embrace in vitro fertilization as a legitimate way for infertile couples to have children, without questioning the ethics of it. "I think evangelicals … haven't thought about these things very much at all," Cameron said, adding, "if you don't think about something, you tend to end up doing it."

Cameron also said it would be more ethical for the U.K. and the U.S. to adopt laws similar to those in Germany, where couples are allowed to fertilize a maximum of three eggs at a time. German law does not permit the freezing of embryos, thus avoiding the dilemma clinics face when deciding what to do with the extra frozen embryos. "It is possible to use IVF in Germany, but not in a way which ultimately destroys embryos and uses embryos as things," he concluded.

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Buoma does not believe that laws limiting the number of embryo transfers address the deeper issues of fertilization treatments. "The Christian community would be well served," he said, "if we could assist infertile couples in recognizing that the inability to conceive or bear a child need not be perceived as a curse or a failure to 'be fruitful and multiply.'"

Related Elsewhere:

Related news articles include:

IVF clinics may face multi-birth restrictions | Fertility clinics may be forced to restrict the number of women implanting more than one embryo at a time during IVF, under proposals unveiled today. (The Telegraph)
Childless couples to face new IVF hurdle | IVF clinics that produce twins and triplets in more than one in ten pregnancies will face disciplinary action under plans to cut multiple births announced yesterday. (The Times)
IVF: Is having twins really so bad? | The birth of twins is a scenario that has become increasingly common in the past few decades as the number of multiple births in the UK has risen significantly, mainly thanks to the success of IVF procedures. (The Sunday Herald)

An essay comparing German and U.S. policies on assisted reproduction is available online.

Christianity Today's articles on contraception and reproductive technology include:

The Slope Really Is Slippery | Why we struggle to gain our moral footing in bioethics. (March 1, 2007)
Fluid Solution | Research advance could shift stem-cell debate. (February 12, 2007)
War on the Weak | Eugenics has made a lethal comeback. (December 4, 2006)
Better Late Than Never | Pregnancy care centers move to the inner city. (November 22, 2006)
Worth Protecting | It's hard to see the humanity of tiny embryos if we live by blind faith. (November 9, 2006)