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Infertile couples desperate to conceive children are turning increasingly to fertility specialists for help. Yet widespread use of assisted reproductive technology (ART) has led to a completely unforeseen consequence: the creation of the world's largest population of frozen human embryos. That reality has ignited a vigorous moral debate among scientists, politicians, theologians, and parents about what should be done with the surplus store of nascent human life.

The challenge for pro-life evangelicals is to develop systematic moral reasoning that can be applied to a range of issues including embryo adoption, human embryonic stem cell research, ART, “therapeutic cloning,” genetic engineering, and birth control. Evangelicals tend to be pragmatic, wedding political activism with biblical appeals, but this has resulted in moral reflection operating on a mostly private and intuitive plane. The tragic pitfall with this style of ethical decision-making is that adverse spiritual and moral consequences often go undetected. When faced with new advances in reproductive technology, this inability to approach new developments within a consistent moral framework can prove to be a dangerous weakness.

Currently, in the United States alone, nearly 500,000 human embryos are being cryopreserved at some 430 fertility clinics. A staggering 88 percent of these embryos, which are only a few days old and much smaller than the dot on this i, were created by doctors for use in some form of assisted reproduction.

The most common ART technique is in vitro fertilization with embryo transfer (IVF-ET), in which a woman is induced to produce multiple eggs where four to six of the most viable are retrieved and then fertilized in the laboratory, with the resulting embryos transferred to the woman's uterus. At the best clinics, the success rate for each in vitro attempt is between 25 and 50 percent.

Each in vitro attempt can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $18,000 (or more) for doctor's fees, plus thousands more for drugs to stimulate ovulation. To decrease the probability of complications associated with higher order multiple pregnancies only two to three embryos are usually transferred to the uterus in each in vitro attempt.

ART doctors typically respond by producing more embryos than are feasible to implant in utero at a single time. This overproduction of embryos requires the surplus to be stored for later possible use.

With the routine overproduction of embryos in IVF-ET questions arise that science alone cannot answer. Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.

Christians and defenders of human dignity who acknowledge embryos to be preborn persons have a dual responsibility to protect the innocent and also to do no harm. The stakes are high because, as Ron Stoddart founder of Nightlight Christian Adoptions stresses, “An embryo is not a potential human life – it is human life with potential.”

Four U.S. embryo adoption programs facilitate embryo adoption: Nightlight Christian Adoptions, Center for Human Reproduction, Bethany Christian Services, and the National Embryo Donation Center. The goal of each is to transfer frozen donor embryos to infertile recipients who intend to use them to procreate.

At first glance, embryo adoption appears to be a life-affirming response to the vast number of frozen embryos being stored at fertility clinics. And it certainly is compared to the 100 percent mortality rate for human embryos used in stem cell research. Yet it is not without problems. In embryo adoption, as in IVF-ET, it often takes repeated attempts before a successful pregnancy is achieved with frozen donor embryos.

At this point, what is the relevant moral difference between IVF-ET and embryo adoption? Have the embryos lost in unsuccessful thawing and transfer attempts been treated properly as individually unique and personal beings created in God's image? Can any form of technology that instrumentalizes life, regardless of the ultimate use to which it is put, be morally satisfying? These questions point to a moral Catch-22 for Christians who support IVF-ET and embryo adoption. Embryo adoption is, at best, a response to the embryo surplus created by IVF-ET, which itself raises fundamental moral questions that Protestant ethicists have not yet probed in sufficient depth.

Among Protestants in general, there is an absence of critical moral discernment on bioethical issues outside the scope of abortion debate. This stems, in part, from Protestant skepticism toward natural law (God's will as expressed in creation, imprinted on the conscience, and known through reason) and from an underdeveloped role for the legal, as opposed to the teaching, aspect of ethics. Informing people what principles ought to guide their conduct and what actions are morally illicit is the teaching aspect of ethics, whereas developing theological and philosophical criteria to adjudicate the morality and severity of illicit human acts is the legal aspect.

The now-neglected legal aspect of Protestant ethics was once a vital part of Anglican and Puritan moral theology. Older Protestant luminaries developed texts on “cases of conscience,” which attempted to discern whether a specific behavior was right or wrong and to evaluate the moral gravity of wrong behavior. They were assisted in this project by their appropriation of Christian Aristotelian philosophy and the natural law tradition.

Routine overproduction of embryos and high mortality rates suggest that IVF-ET degrades and instrumentalizes the very life it seeks to create. The fundamental purpose of every embryo is to realize its own life: to fulfill its divine purpose of achieving life as a rational, social, creative, spiritual, and morally free and responsible person. In assisted reproduction and cryopreservation – unlike in normal conception and gestation – the natural progression of an embryo's life from potential to actual can be temporarily interrupted, stalled for a time, or worse, permanently thwarted from achieving its purpose.

So, aside from the issue of what to do with surplus embryos, the more fundamental question remains: How will pro-life Christian supporters of IVF-ET and embryo adoption resolve the moral Catch-22 brought to light by the vast stores of nascent human life? Protestants need to think seriously about this moral paradox and to retrieve older, more sophisticated traditions in ethics – such as natural law – to provide assistance.

This commentary is adapted from a longer essay that first appeared in the July/August edition of BreakPoint Worldview magazine.

Stephen J. Grabill, Ph.D., is the author of Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethicspart of the Emory University Studies in Law and Religion series from Wm. B. Eerdmans.