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Word Games

Wesley J. Smith

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Imagine the difficulty of engaging in a political debate in front of an audience that didn't speak your language. Empirical analysis would mean nothing: What use would be the marshalling of facts and evidence when your audience wouldn't be able to understand what you were saying? And as for the art of persuasion, forget about it. No matter how brilliant your argument, to your audience, it would just be confusing noise.

Unfortunately, confusing noise is what much of the public is hearing in the political debate over biotechnology. This isn't an accident. Promoters of human cloning and other controversial biotechnologies know that if the American people heard the plain, unvarnished truth about what biotechnologists want to do and where the research would be likely to lead, popular support for Big Biotech's political agendas would collapse.

So, industry boosters have seized upon a deeply cynical tactic of using scientifically inaccurate words and terms to obfuscate the entire debate to the point of incomprehensibility. Take the controversy over human cloning, as just one example. Cloning is accomplished via a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). According to the unanimous conclusion of the President's Council on Bioethics, the act of human SCNT creates a "cloned human embryo." Moreover, as the Council rightly reported, "The same activity [SCNT] may be undertaken for purposes of producing children or for purposes of scientific and medical investigation and use." In other words, cloning, is cloning, is cloning.

Whether this matters or not is a moral and ethical issue, not a scientific one. But to engage in proper moral analysis, people must be allowed to know the biological fact that SCNT cloning creates a new human organism, a new human life. But that is precisely what cloning proponents will not admit. Look at how Senator Dianne Feinstein described a cloned embryo in her argument on the floor of the United States Senate in support of legislation to explicitly legalize human cloning for biomedical research:

The beauty of our legislation is that it would allow this most promising form of stem cell research, somatic cell nuclear transplantation, to be conducted on a human egg for up to 14 days only, under strict standards of Federal regulation...The reason for this 14 days is to limit any research before the so-called primitive streak [the beginning of the nervous system] can take over that egg. This stem cell research can only take place on an unfertilized egg...An unfertilized egg is not capable of becoming a human being. Therefore we limit stem cell research to unfertilized eggs.

This is nonsensical on its face. An unfertilized egg doesn't develop embryonic stem cells; embryos do. An unfertilized egg cannot develop a primitive streak on its own. An unfertilized egg could never be capable of becoming a human being, by which Feinstein undoubtedly meant a born baby. It is merely a cell, a "gamete" in scientific lexicon. Pretending that a cloned embryo is merely an unfertilized egg distorts the moral stakes in the debate through the use of false definitions and junk science.

Here's another example. "The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act," a proposed constitutional amendment to the California Constitution that would grant researchers a constitutional right to engage in human SCNT cloning and embryonic stem cell research, will be on California's November 2004 ballot. But look at how these acts are described in the initiative:

There is hereby established a right to conduct stem cell research which includes research involving adult stem cells, cord blood stem cells, pluripotent stem cells, and or progenitor cells...Pluripotent stem cells may be derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer or from surplus products of in vitro fertilization treatments when such products are donated under appropriate informed consent procedures.

Notice that while the popular terms "adult stem cells" and "cord blood stem cells" are used-both of which are utterly uncontroversial-while the term "embryonic stem cells," which is highly controversial, is completely absent. Instead, the authors used the eye glazing "pluripotent stem cells," with the clear intent of hiding the fact that the initiative would grant a right to engage in research that destroys embryos. More than that, the authors of the initiative are so disingenuous that the they don't even call embryos-whether natural or cloned-embryos! They are merely called "surplus products of in vitro fertilization treatments" or pluripotent cells "derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer." And even this latter phrase is inaccurate, since SCNT does not create pluripotent cells. It creates cloned embryos, which must be destroyed to derive pluripotent cells.

Does the crucial word "cloning" appear in the initiative? Yes, but only in connection with barring funding for research into "reproductive cloning." Thus, even though the act of SCNT is the one and only act of cloning, cloning for biomedical research is called SCNT, while the same procedure when undertaken for making babies is still called cloning. The purpose of this false dichotomy, of course, is to make it appear to voters that the initiative is against cloning, when it actually creates an explicit constitutional right to engage in that very activity.

This is all profoundly disrespectful of the American people by impeding an honest debate. But boosters of Big Biotech don't care. They know that the more confusion their word games sow, the more likely they are to get their way.

Award winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.

Read this article on The Bioethics and Culture Network website. Reprinted from the The Bioethics and Culture Network newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter.

Posted: 7/5/04



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