If you really want to understand the embryonic stem-cell research debate, here's a reading assignment: Stephen Hall's 2003 book Merchants of Immortality. I flipped back to Hall when the stem-cell issue flared up two weeks ago, and President George W. Bush was seen posing with a curious array of children who had been "adopted" as leftover in vitro fertilization embryos, implanted in wombs, and brought to term thanks to the work of a group called Nightlight Christian Adoptions and its "Snowflakes" program. "There is no such thing as a spare embryo," Bush declared, flanked by "snowflakes" children (so named in order to signify that every embryo is unique). Later, Bush explained that he had appeared with these children in order to indicate that "there's an alternative to the destruction of life."
It's not the first time conservatives have turned to the Snowflakes group in a pinch. As Hall relates in Merchants of Immortality, even before Bush made his fateful August 2001 decision to tightly limit federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, Snowflakes and Nightlight were parties to a lawsuit seeking to prevent the release of any such funding under a Clinton administration policy still in place at the time (Bush later overturned it). In the suit, Snowflakes teamed up with two Christian Right legal groups, as well as the conservative law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher -- which, as it happened, had recently represented Bush during the Florida recount.
Such allegiances, from the very early days of the stem-cell debate, cast light on the recent reemergence -- in yet another political pinch -- of the Snowflakes group by Bush's side. After all, if the 2001 lawsuit had succeeded, Bush might never have been forced to make one of his greatest political mistakes: deciding to appease religious conservatives (and enrage everybody else) by limiting embryonic stem-cell research funding on explicitly moral and political grounds. Instead, the lawsuit might have given Bush a legalistic way to wiggle out of the controversy without setting new policy.
But Snowflakes hasn't only been useful in providing legal positioning. It has also delivered great p.r. On cue, it seems, the group can produce cute babies to pose with politicians, who can then hold up the children and observe that they were once leftover IVF embryos that might otherwise have been discarded. This frequently descends into political theater -- the wearing of "former embryo" T-shirts and the like.
Meanwhile, Snowflakes, like the pro-life movement generally, has twisted the English language. Embryos (tiny balls of cells) are equated by the group with living, breathing children via the phrase "adoption." In 2001, one Snowflakes attorney took the linguistic abuse even further, calling leftover embryos at fertility clinics a "refugee population" and then -- in a mix of metaphors -- describing them as being on "death row." (Ironically, embryo "adoption" itself "kills" embryos; many are used in the process, and the success rate tends to be very low.)
Despite such manipulation, few have been willing to call embryo "adoption" what it actually is: a massive diversion from the central issue in the stem-cell debate. To be fair, Snowflakes has made families happy on an individual level by bringing them children. But when Snowflakes gets involved in lobbying against stem-cell research, it contributes to a broader communications strategy that willfully distracts us from what's actually at stake.
The real issue, of course, is this: IVF, as currently practiced in the United States (and no mainstream politician is seriously proposing tightening regulations on the industry), creates a large number of excess embryos. In part because of the lack of regulation, different IVF clinics have different policies for dealing with these embryos, but virtually all are willing to cryo-preserve and store them for couples (almost always for a fee). In addition, many clinics offer a range of other options, including disposal, donation to other couples (leading to what some would call "adoption"), and donation for scientific research. Who decides which option to pursue? The IVF couples, of course -- and it's politically inconceivable to change this. The government is not going to come in and tell people what to do with their embryos.
That's where the Snowflakes p.r. campaign completely unravels. No matter how many politicians pose with cute babies that have been produced through embryo "adoption," the fact is that some couples with excess embryos will always take a different route, more consistent with their own values and worldview, for dealing with these embryos: the route of donating them for the advancement of scientific research. Indeed, even couples who have not yet decided to donate to science may not opt for "adoption" either. I recently had an e-mail exchange with one reader who had conceived a child with his wife through IVF and now pays for the storage of leftover embryos. This person explained to me that so far, he and his wife had not wanted to make their excess embryos available to another couple because they didn't want to be involved in bringing more children into the world than they themselves would be capable of raising. In the future, they may opt to donate the embryos for research.
Which brings us back to Bush's claim that there's "no such thing as a spare embryo," and his appearance with Snowflakes children in order to suggest that "there's an alternative to the destruction of life." When Bush used the word "alternative," he failed to inform us that the people making the choice here are free actors, not ruled by the government -- which only enters into the process later to decide whether to fund research involving excess embryos already donated for that purpose. Snowflakes cannot reverse that private decision to donate; it has no right. Neither does Bush.
But if there will always be excess embryos, and if no one can possibly or legally "adopt" them all, then that puts us right back where we started, despite the Snowflakes diversion. Some American couples have decided to set aside their embryos for the purposes of scientific research. Period. They're already available to science, and the only remaining decision is whether our government will support that vital research.
Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a TAP Online columnist. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.