A War of Words in Bioethics

Political battles are often won or lost with definitions. Proponents of abortion learned this lesson well. They didn’t want to be described as those who were willing to kill innocent life. So they changed the focus from the baby to the woman and emphasized her personal choice. Those who are pro-abortion called themselves “pro-choice” and supported “a woman’s right to choose.” Changing the words and modifying the definitions allowed them to be more successful and more socially acceptable.

Homosexuals learned the same lesson. If the focus was on their sexual activity, the public would not be on their side. So they began to talk about sexual orientation and alternate lifestyles. Then they began to focus on attacks on homosexuals and argue that teaching tolerance of homosexuality was important to the safety of homosexuals. Again, changing the words and the debate made the issue more socially acceptable.

Now this same war of words is being waged over cloning and stem cell research. The recent debate in Congress about cloning introduced a new term: therapeutic cloning. Those who want to use cloning argued that there are really two kinds of cloning. One is reproductive cloning which involves the creation of a child. The other is called therapeutic cloning which involves cloning human embryos which are eventually destroyed rather than implanted in a mother’s womb.

Representative Jim Greenwood (R-PA) sponsored a bill that would permit this second form of human cloning for embryonic stem cell research while outlawing the first form of cloning to produce children. Although it was put forward as a compromise, pro-life advocates rightly called his legislation a “clone and kill bill.” Fortunately, the Greenwood bill was defeated, and a bill banning all cloning sponsored by Representative Dave Weldon (R-FL) passed the House and was sent to the Senate.

Another example of this war of words can be seen in the floor debate over these two bills. The opponents of the “clone and kill bill” were subjected to harsh criticism and stereotypes. Both the debate on cloning and the debate on stem cells has often been presented as a battle between compassion and conservatives or between science and religion. Here are just a few of the statements made during the House debate on cloning:

Anna Eshoo (D-CA): “As we stand on the brink of finding the cures to diseases that have plagued so many millions of Americans, unfortunately, the Congress today in my view is on the brink of prohibiting this critical research.”

Zoe Lofgren (D-CA): “If your religious beliefs will not let you accept a cure for your child’s cancer, so be it. But do not expect the rest of America to let their loved ones suffer without cure.”

Jerold Nadler (D-NY): “We must not say to millions of sick or injured human beings, ‘go ahead and die, stay paralyzed, because we believe the blastocyst, the clump of cells, is more important than you are.’ . . . It is a sentence of death to millions of Americans.”

Notice too how a human embryo is merely called a blastocyst. Though a correct biological term, it is used to diminish the humanity of the unborn. In the stem cell debate, it was disturbing to see how much attention was given to those who might potentially benefit from the research and how little attention was given to the reality that human beings would be destroyed to pursue the research.

Moreover, the claims of immediate success were mostly hype and hyperbole. Columnist Charles Krauthammer called it “The Great Stem Cell Hoax.” He believes that any significant cures are decades away.

He also points out how it has become politically correct to “sugarcoat the news.” The most notorious case was the article in the prestigious scientific journal Science. The authors’ research showed that embryonic stem cells of mice were genetically unstable. Their article concluded by saying that this research might put into question the clinical applicability of stem cell research.

Well, such a critical statement just couldn’t be allowed to be stated publicly. So in a highly unusual move, the authors withdrew the phrase that the genetic instability of stem cells “might limit their use in clinical applications” just days before publication.

Charles Krauthammer says, “This change in text represents a corruption of science that mirrors the corruption of language in the congressional debate. It is corrupting because this study might have helped to undermine the extravagant claims made by stem cell advocates that a cure for Parkinson’s or spinal cord injury or Alzheimer’s is in the laboratory and just around the corner, if only those right-wing, antiabortion nuts would let it go forward.”

So the current debate in bioethics not only brings in Huxley’s Brave New World, but also George Orwell’s newspeak. The debate about cloning and stem cells is not only a debate about the issues but a war of words where words and concepts are redefined.


©2001 Probe Ministries