Language always plays a critical role in how and what we communicate. The field of bioethics is no stranger to the language wars. Early on, under the direction of Leon Kass, the President’s council on bioethics talked about the importance of terms, language, and nomenclature in these great bioethics debates. Bait and switch terms–have you noticed how seamlessly some slip from ‘cures’ for patients to ‘disease models’ for research, obfuscation of facts and euphemisms run wild which has been tragic as we at the CBC have worked hard to promote the public discourse in this field which relies so heavily on honest uses of language.
Last week, the New Scientist print edition devoted much of its publication to issues of assisted reproduction and the cloning and stem cell debate. One particular piece, titled, “Biologists want to drop the word “cloning”” caught my eye. The thrust of the piece pointed to a survey conducted by the Genetics and Public Policy Center which asked more than 2000 Americans if they approved of getting stem cells for research from embryos made by cloning. In half of the 2000 surveyed they used the word cloning. The other half, when surveyed, had the term, somatic cell nuclear transfer substituted for the word cloning. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is the scientific name or process to make a clone. The genetic material from one cell of a human is transferred into a cell from another human after having its genetic material removed. Viola, a little electrical charge, and the new cell begins dividing into a clone!
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict the result of the 2000 American people survey. For those asked if they approved of stem cell research with cloning, 29% said yes. If asked the same question inserting somatic cell nuclear transfer, 46% said yes. You see if people think something is ethical, they are all for it. Win – win! So, it makes sense why biologists want to remove cloning from their vocabulary. If you want to do something unethical, just changes the terms so people can feel good about the decisions and views they hold and you can do the research you want to do. Lose – lose!
An unexpected result also occurred when those survey in the same fashion were asked about cloning vs. somatic cell nuclear transfer for creating babies. The terminology bait and switch backfired because 24% of people approved of somatic cell nuclear transfer to create babies while only 10% approved of cloning to make babies.
So, it is no wonder that biologists want to drop the word cloning and obfuscate the facts since they are adamant that under no uncertain terms will limits be placed on their research.
But a clone by any other name is still human, but unfortunately now it is a human life dehumanized by commodification.
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