WHEN CONGRESS THREATENED TO LOOSEN limits on stem cell research earlier this year, the Bush administration called in the snowflakes. Rescued as embryos from fertility clinic freezers by families who had “adopted” them and brought them to parturition (legally speaking, children have to be born before they can be adopted), these previously frozen test-tube babies were invited to the White House this past May for some well-publicized cuddling with the president. Wearing “Former Embryo” T-shirts, the adorable thawed tots allowed the administration to make a point about the hundreds of thousands of spare embryos currently chilling in liquid nitrogen at clinics around the nation, many of them destined to be thrown out or, if new legislation is passed, destroyed in taxpayer-financed research. “Rather than discard these embryos created during in vitro fertilization,” observed President Bush, “or turn them over for research that destroys them, these families have chosen a life-affirming alternative.”
The fate of frozen embryos has become one of our most pressing public issues, central not only to the debate over stem cell research but also to a wider culture war between science and faith. To religious conservatives intent on building a “culture of life,” these microscopic bundles of eight or so undifferentiated cells are cryogenically suspended human lives crying out for our protection. To many other Americans across a wide ideological spectrum—from liberal bioethicists to conservative Republicans like Senate majority leader Dr. Bill Frist—the frozen embryos are full genetic blueprints for human beings sadly destined never to develop but capable of saving countless lives. Religious conservatives have scrambled to throw embryo adoption into the fray because it seems to provide living proof that each one of these frozen souls, certain to perish if its stem cells are extracted for research, is already on the way to becoming a camera-ready kid. In the cold light of day, however, the picture isn’t so heartwarming: This kind of adoption actually destroys far more embryos than it saves. Behind the holier-than-thou claims for this alternative, which already receives taxpayer support, there’s nothing but fuzzy ethics, a moral calculus that just doesn’t add up.
To do the math properly, you have to start with this date: July 25, 1978. That’s the birthday of an English girl who overcame long odds to become the first so-called test-tube baby (she was actually conceived in a petri dish). Louise Brown was the 200th in a sacrificial lineage of fertilized eggs that researchers attempted to implant in a woman’s uterus before she was brought to term. But researchers quickly learned how to make in vitro fertilization ( IVF) more efficient and affordable. Fertility-enhancing drugs could stimulate the ovaries to overproduce eggs, and several fertilized eggs could be implanted in the womb at one time, increasing the chance that at least one would result in a live birth. Because delicately removing the unfertilized eggs from the ovaries is the most expensive part of the process, it became more economical to remove a large number—ideally about fifteen—during each extraction procedure and to implant two to four in the womb after they had been fertilized. The spares could then be cryogenically frozen for future implantations. The first birth from a thawed embryo was in 1984; today, thousands of babies are born from frozen embryos every year.
Also born on Louise’s birthday was one of modern medicine’s most unlikely success stories. Although IVF is expensive (averaging about $12,000 for each egg extraction “cycle”), not particularly reliable (even with multiple embryo implantations, the chance of a live birth is about one in three), and usually not covered by insurance in this country, it has become a multibillion-dollar industry, accounting for one in every hundred American births. Today, IVF seems to be one of the few things most Americans agree on. A recent Harris poll showed that only 10 percent of the population had a religious prohibition against IVF, a figure that was similar to the one for those who objected to routine surgery.
But religious leaders have never given petri-dish procreation such an overwhelming mandate. Lacking direct scriptural guidance, they’ve adopted a make-it-up-as-you-go approach to the morality of IVF, and their messages have often been mixed. Despite some early misgivings, assisted reproduction was rather quickly accepted by many influential Christian conservatives; the Christian Medical and Dental Associations endorsed IVF within the bounds of marriage in 1983. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who recently compared embryonic stem cell research to Nazi medical experiments, summarized evangelical Protestant pragmatism on IVF: “I feel that in vitro fertilization is less problematic when the donors are husband and wife—if all the fertilized eggs are inserted into the uterus.…As the woman’s body then accepts one or more eggs and rejects the others, the process is left in God’s hands. This seems to violate no moral principles.”
However, IVF did violate the moral principles of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1987 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (a more benign successor to the dreaded Inquisition) issued a landmark document known as “Donum Vitae” (“The Gift of Life”), which proscribed IVF because of the embryo attrition and because even married couples’ using their own eggs offended “the dignity of procreation and of the conjugal union.” The author of “Donum Vitae” was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—and his thinking was instrumental in shaping his predecessor’s epochal 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life.” Directly quoting Ratzinger’s “Donum Vitae,” Pope John Paul II insisted that “the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception.” Noting that even free societies have approved of euthanasia, abortion, and capital punishment, the pontiff declared, “We are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life.’”
The late pope’s catchphrase first appeared in our political arena when George W. Bush started talking about the culture of life in his 2000 campaign. Not only has our born-again Methodist president popularized the pithy pontifical slogan, but