October 6, 2022

Words become weapons in stem cell debate

The current US debate over stem cells has reignited complaints from both sides that their opponents are manipulating words for political gain. House of Representatives majority Leader Tom DeLay came under fire for describing the use of embryos for stem cell research as “dismemberment of living, distinct human beings”. Linguistics expert Deborah Tannen, of Georgetown University, complained that DeLay was trying to associate stem cell research with late-term abortion. The Washington Post condemned his “irresponsible rhetoric” which implied that IVF was “legalised torture and murder on a mass scale”.

However, William Hurlbut, a Stanford University biologist who sits on the President’s Council on Bioethics, defended the term as “conceptually correct”. “The truth is that even though it is very tiny, the blastocyst-stage embryo… does have distinct parts. To disaggregate it to get the ES (embryonic stem ) cells is to pull apart a human body in its incipient but unfolding form”.

Similarly, the announcement that a South Korean team had cloned human embryos led New York Times journalist Gina Kolata to point out that the scientists had never actually used the word “clone” or “embryo”. Rather, they spoke about “somatic cell nuclear transfer” and “human NT blastocysts”.

“Everybody is terrified of the word, ‘cloning’ ” Dr. David Shaywitz, a stem cell researcher at Harvard University, told her. “It conjures up so many frightening images… People who are opposed to the research go out of their way to use that word and people who support the research are trying to find other ways to explain what they are doing.”

The President’s Council on Bioethics has called for greater honesty in the debate. “Although as a scientific matter ‘somatic cell nuclear transfer’ or ‘nuclear transplantation’ may accurately describe the technique that is used to produce the embryonic clone, these terms fail to convey the nature of the deed itself, and they hide its human significance,” the council wrote.

And the council’s head Dr Leon Kass told Kolata that “The initial product of their cloning technique is without doubt a living cloned human embryo, the functional equivalent of a fertilised egg… If we are properly to evaluate the ethics of this research and where it might lead, we must call things by their right names and not disguise what is going on with euphemism or misleading nomenclature.”