Verbal Engineering and Bio-engineering

Because the stakes are so high with many of the new biotechnologies, proponents of them often resort to word games to cover up what is really going on. Euphemisms are used to conceal the ugly realities of some of the reproductive technologies being considered.

This has certainly been the case in Australia where defenders of clone and kill bills try to redefine reality by redefining terms. Terms which are likely to offend, such as human cloning, are called by other names, such as Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT). This is in fact a method of cloning – the one used to create Dolly the sheep – but it has a less threatening ring to it than the more frightening phrase, human cloning.

Another trick is simply to deceive people as to what is going on. In Australia, a favourite trick of the cloning camp is to argue that the SCNT process is not really cloning, and that only if the newly formed embryo is allowed to, say, be implanted, is cloning in fact taking place.

But that is just verbal sleight of hand. As soon as that new embryo comes into being, via SCNT, a clone has already been created. By destroying it at around day 7 to remove its stem cells, thereby preventing the next step of implantation, has nothing to do with cloning about to happen. It already has happened. To call the product of this process a ‘cellular extension of the donor’ or some such thing is to engage in deception. This product is a clone, pure and simple.

Australian cloners are not alone in such verbal smoke screens. In the US similar battles are taking place. On November 7 a number of political seats will be decided in elections, along with a number of referenda. One is in the state of Missouri. Amendment Two proposes a permanent change to Missouri’s constitution, ensuring any research allowed federally would also be allowed in Missouri, including research on embryonic stem cells.

One very vocal supporter of this initiative is actor Michael J. Fox. He has been campaigning hard and long for cloning and embryo research. A Parkinson’s sufferer, Fox has been an impassioned supporter on Amendment Two. But as Colleen Carroll Campbell explains in an article in (November 2, 2006), this is another case of verbal manipulation.

Fox recently appeared on a US TV talk show, and when pressed as to what was in the legislation, he did not seem to know much at all: “Asked to explain how he could square the amendment’s claim to ban cloning with its fine-print promise to enshrine as a constitutional right somatic cell nuclear transfer – the technical term for the cloning process that was used to create Dolly the sheep – Fox said he was ‘not qualified to speak on the page-to-page content of the initiative. Although I am quite sure that I’ll agree with it in spirit, I don’t know, I – on full disclosure, I haven’t read it, and that’s why I didn’t put myself up for it distinctly’.”

Continues Campbell, “It’s too bad that Fox did not do his homework before making his impassioned televised plea to Missouri voters last week. . . . Reading past the 96-word ballot title and delving into the nearly 2,000 words of fine print, Fox would have discovered that the amendment’s authors bucked the scientific establishment’s commonly accepted definition of human cloning as the process of creating a cloned human embryo and opted instead to define cloning as the implantation of an embryo into a uterus. In other words, their amendment bans reproductive cloning while making the cloning and killing of human embryos for research a constitutional right.”

Because most people are concerned about the brave new world of cloning, supporters of it know they have to try to cover up just what they are seeking to do: “Cloning supporters have long understood that the more we know about their research, the more likely we are to reject it. Some, like Missourians Dr. William Danforth and William Neaves, have lobbied their colleagues to stop using such unpopular and transparent terms as ‘embryonic stem cells’ and ‘therapeutic cloning’ and replace them with more obscure references to ‘early stem cells’ and ‘somatic cell nuclear transfer.’ The pair even urged scientists to stop referring to the product of human cloning as a ‘cloned embryo’ and call it a ‘pre-embryo’ instead.”

This subterfuge stands in sharp contrast to proper medical usage of terms: “The New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet, publications that support research cloning, have described nuclear transfer as the process that creates a ‘cloned embryo’ and have used the term ‘therapeutic cloning.’ Even a brochure promoting Amendment Two includes testimonials to the benefits of ‘therapeutic cloning’.”

Concludes Campbell, “Editors of scientific and medical journals respect their readers too much to play word games with them. Would that the authors of Amendment Two had the same respect for Missouri voters. Their stealth strategy, enabled by the scientific illiteracy of the popular press, may convince Midwestern, red-state voters to enshrine cloning in their state constitution on November 7. If it does, we can expect to see similar ballot measures proposed from coast to coast. And the c-word will be nowhere in sight.”

Quite so. It is a pity that there cannot be more transparency in the debate down under as well. Too many word games are being played, when so much is at stake. We need to call the other side’s bluff when they persist in seeking to mislead and misinform the Australian public on such vital matters.

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