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 he also precisely echoes the language and theology of “The Gospel of Life” while continuing to disagree with the Vatican on capital punishment, preemptive war, and, as it turns out, IVF, for which the president has taken pains to reiterate his support.

As the culture of life bounced along unpredictably from the mind of the future pope to the pen of the late pope to the mouth of our president, the freezers were filling with frozen embryos. An oft-cited RAND Corporation study from 2002 identified almost 400,000 “frosties,” as they’re known in the trade, of which almost 90 percent were being kept in cold storage for future implantations by their biological parents. Of the rest, about 11,000 had been donated for biomedical research, which could yield an estimated 275 new “lines” for embryonic stem cell research (the Bush administration currently approves 22 preexisting lines for federally funded research). About 9,000 embryos have been designated as available for “donation” (the term the fertility industry prefers) to other couples, with an equal number expected to be discarded.

The concept of adopting some of these frozen embryos originated with California-based Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which started its Snowflakes program in 1997. (Frosties were dubbed “snowflakes” to emphasize that each embryo is a genetically unique human.) Even before President Bush made his 2001 decision allowing research only on embryonic stem cell lines that had already been extracted from discarded embryos—thus avoiding the “further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life”—some of Snowflakes’ clients had trundled their babies to congressional offices and lobbied against embryonic stem cell research. Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has distributed millions of dollars in federal grants to promote “public awareness” of the adoption option, with most of the money going to Snowflakes and another Christian-affiliated program.

That awareness was greatly increased when 21 Snowflakes families, both adopters and donors, met the president at the May photo op. According to Snowflakes’ own figures, at about that time 120 client families had thawed 985 contractually adopted embryos, of which a bit more than half weren’t viable after being defrosted—the average rate of attrition for the IVF industry. About half of the client families eventually ended up with a total of 81 children (twins and triplets, the result of those multiple implantations, are common in IVF), again an average success rate. But that’s roughly a ten-to-one ratio of dead embryos to living children, a rather costly “rescue,” to use a term ubiquitous in adoption circles, of embryos that weren’t in any imminent danger in the deep freeze; their donors, who must give consent to any transfer of their embryos, could instead have opted to keep them frozen. (A California baby was recently born after thirteen years at minus 319 degrees.)

Shortly before meeting with the lucky snowflakes who survived their rescues, the president told reporters he would exercise the first veto of his tenure if Congress passed a bill to lift restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. He rejected using “taxpayers’ money to promote science which destroys life in order to save life,” but just three days later, the president was lauding a program that uses taxpayers’ money to promote the destruction of a lot of embryos in order to save a few. And it would be mass destruction if somehow all the 29,000 embryos destined for research, donation, or discarding were put up for adoption (in practice the vast majority of couples don’t like the idea of someone else raising their genetic offspring). Currently, the cost of rescuing perhaps 3,000 snowflakes would be more than 25,000 “innocent human lives.”

But the White House is hardly alone in advancing the fuzzy ethical concept that an embryo is absolutely, positively an inviolable human life—except when it needs to be sacrificed to make the point that it is absolutely, positively an inviolable human life. Powerful conservative Christian organizations such as the Family Research Council, which had pilloried the president for his indifference to human life after his 2001 decision, have leaped to embrace embryo adoption. Remarkably, even the Catholic Church waffles on this one; almost two decades after ruling that IVF performed with donor embryos (the essential procedure in embryo adoption) is even more illicit than using your own, the Vatican continues to insist that it needs more “scientific and statistical data” before making a ruling on embryo adoption. Little wonder that some skeptics believe that embryo adoption is a back door to criminalizing abortion: If a day-old embryo could be legally adopted as a living person under the law—currently only property law applies—then every fetus would acquire the legal status of a person.

However, for the culture of life to be absolutely, positively consistent on the inviolability of the embryo, religious conservatives across the board would have to suck it up and attack IVF as aggressively as they have abortion rights. That would result in the spectacle of embryo rights protesters descending on Washington, waving blurry gray microscope photos of amorphous eight-cell clusters, while thousands of adorable kids and accomplished young adults counterprotest in T-shirts reading “Former Test-Tube Baby.” Given IVF’s already overwhelming public support, who do you think is going to win that confrontation—and why are we not likely to see it?

So our frozen embryos remain in liquid nitrogen limbo, their status morally ambiguous even to religious conservatives who so starkly contrast their culture of life with the confused moral “relativism” of a secular culture of death. Of course, the object of embryo adoption is humane and high-minded, but it is no more or less so—and no more or less deadly to embryos—than the compassionate goals of embryonic stem cell research; it’s the hypocrisy with which the distinction has been made that should raise more than a minor alarm. At a time when we are increasingly outsourcing our public and private morality to a consortium of powerful institutions—the megachurches, televangelical ministries, advocacy groups like Focus on the Family, and the White House—we are in danger of building a culture of life crafted, at best, with careless naivete and, at worst, with glib political slogans and cynical duplicity.