Randy and Julie McClure had three children who were long out of diapers and no plans for more when they heard about a program called Snowflakes, which arranges for women to become pregnant with embryos left over at fertility clinics.
"We really felt like the Lord was calling us to try to give one of these embryos, these children, a chance to live," Ms. McClure said.
Mr. McClure, though, disliked the fertility business, which he felt created extra embryos that were often destroyed or aborted. He feared that paying fees to receive the embryos would be helping an industry "that I have real problems with."
He consulted a Southern Baptist church elder, who advised him, " 'If you want to free the slaves, sometimes you have to deal with the slave trader,' " Mr. McClure said.
With that, the McClures, who are in their 40's and live in Bellevue, Wash., decided to take 13 embryos from a fertility clinic in Austin, Tex. They had a son 10 months ago and became part of an unexpected alliance that conservative Christians have been forming with the world of test-tube babies.
That alliance was on prominent display last week when, to protest a bill supporting the use of embryos for stem cell research, President Bush appeared with the McClures and 20 other Snowflakes families, kissing the babies, some of whom wore T-shirts that said "former embryo," or "this embryo was not discarded." Federal and state lawmakers have held similar appearances.
People on this part of the political spectrum have begun calling the process "embryo adoption," echoing the phrase that Snowflakes uses instead of "embryo donation." The Health and Human Services Department has termed the process embryo adoption in certain grants. Bills that would formally call it "embryo adoption" have begun to filter into statehouses in California, New Jersey and Massachusetts, states that, not coincidentally, are at the forefront of legalizing and encouraging embryonic stem cell research.
The adoption terminology irritates the fertility industry, abortion rights advocates and supporters of embryonic stem cell research, who believe that the language suggests - erroneously, they maintain - that an embryo has the same status as a child.
But for some conservative Christians, that is precisely the point.
"I think appearing with Snowflakes kids is a potent symbol, and I think it illustrates the truth, which is that the embryo is just that child at an earlier stage of development," said Bill Saunders, director of the Family Research Council's Center for Human Life and Bioethics.
Such groups make strange bedfellows, he acknowledged, with clinics devoted to in vitro fertilization.
"Our position on I.V.F. would be you shouldn't create through I.V.F. more embryos than are going to be implanted, and we don't think any should be frozen," Mr. Saunders said. "But when it's clear that a couple are unable to or unwilling to implant an embryo - that basically they've abandoned the child - then we see embryo adoption as a solution to the problem."
The fertility industry and its supporters worry that the cuddly image of Snowflakes babies could not only dampen enthusiasm for using embryos for research, but also lead to laws that make embryo donation the only option for excess embryos.
"We're concerned that the people promoting the Snowflakes program have an explicit political agenda to actually take away choices from infertility patients," said Sean B. Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "I think it's terrifically ironic that these families were built thanks to in vitro fertilization, a medical advance that 30 years ago many of these same organizations and people objected to and fought." Now, he added, "they don't want to let the next wonderful technology help other families."
Mr. Tipton and others point out what the Snowflakes program itself acknowledges, that most couples choose not to donate embryos to other families because they are uncomfortable having other people raise children using their embryos. Only about 2 percent of the estimated 400,000 frozen embryos wind up being given to other families, according to a 2003 survey by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
A Northwestern University study found that when embryos are frozen, up to 30 percent of couples say they would donate extras to another family, but three years later, two-thirds of those couples decide not to.
Ron Stoddart, the executive director of the Nightlight Christian Adoption agency, which started Snowflakes in 1997 and named it to reflect the frozen uniqueness of each embryo, said that he expected fewer embryos to be available in the future because fertility clinics are increasingly successful at implantation and will not need to create so many.
Infertile couples might find several attractions to carrying someone else's embryo: at less than $10,000 through Snowflakes, it is less expensive than other methods like egg donation; it allows a couple to experience pregnancy; and the couple can control the baby's prenatal care. But the process is not without risks.
Mr. Stoddart, whose group has so far assisted 59 families in giving birth to 81 babies, said that once embryos are donated, only half survive the thawing process, and of those, only about 35 percent result in a baby. One mother died last year from pregnancy complications, said Lori Maze, director of Snowflakes.
To carry an embryo, Ms. McClure, 45, who home-schooled her children, now 11, 16 and 19, first had to undergo surgery to remove polyps. Then, most of the 13 embryos proved unviable, and one round of embryo implantation failed before she finally had a successful pregnancy using the final embryo.
Couples adopting or donating Snowflakes embryos are mostly Christian, and most embryo donors are white, Ms. Maze said. Some families are Roman Catholic, even though the church has historically opposed in vitro fertilization.
Couples must agree to adoption-like procedures: receiving families are screened and must undergo counseling, and Snowflakes allows donating and receiving families to designate criteria for each other, meet and maintain contact after birth. Adopting couples must agree not to abort any embryos.
Those conditions were fine with Bob and Angie Deacon of Virginia Beach, Va., who donated their 13 embryos after having twins and being discouraged from another pregnancy by a doctor. "With another program, to be honest with you, they could have been adopted by lesbian parents, and I'm totally against that," said Mr. Deacon, 35.
It took two and a half years to bring themselves to fill out the papers. On their forms, they said the adopting family must be conservative Christians and, ideally, include a stay-at-home mother.
"I knew that I had to do it," Ms. Deacon said, "to get through the selfishness within myself, that these are my children, and letting someone else raise them and me not being able to have them."
Mr. Stoddart said that he used the word adoption in a general sense and that it described the experience of the families.
"We have adopt-a-pet, adopt-a highway," he said. "I personally feel that a child is going to feel a lot more comfortable knowing they were adopted as an embryo than knowing that they were donated."
Health and Human Services has given grants to Snowflakes and other organizations specifically to promote "embryo adoption." Several groups that oppose the term embryo adoption, including the American Fertility Association, have also received federal grants and used the money to educate couples that embryo donation is one option among many.
Pamela Madsen, the association's director, said the group also approved of donating embryos for research and having them "thawed without transfer," the industry term for discarding them.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines that it said would "enhance the availability of embryos for donation," by exempting embryos from medical screenings required of donated tissues, like livers or corneas. Many frozen embryos could not have met the screening requirements because many couples are not tested for communicable diseases beforehand.
As for conservatives' political embrace of Snowflakes, Mr. Stoddart, who has sent state legislators a proposed embryo adoption bill, says that he is happy to oblige.
"The best way to increase awareness of embryo adoption is controversy," he said. "The embryonic stem cell research debate has done more to publicize this than anything. Nobody's going to put pictures of the president kissing a child in your paper just to publicize an adoption program."