The following essay was originally published on National Review Online ( www.nationalreview.com), at
The Amazing Vanishing Embryo Trick
By Douglas Johnson
Legislative Director, National Right to Life Committee.
July 17, 2001, 1:30 p.m.
It was revealed last week that Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) of Worcester, Massachusetts, a prominent privately owned biotechnology firm, has a plan to mass-produce human embryos. The firm also has a plan to render those same embryos nonexistent.
ACT is attempting to develop a technique to produce "cloned human entities," who would then be killed in order to harvest their stem cells, as first reported by Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss (July 12).
As Associated Press biotechnology writer Paul Elias explained in a July 13 report, "Many scientists consider the [anticipated] results of Advanced Cell's technique to be human embryos, since theoretically, they could be implanted into a womb and grown into a fetus. [ACT chief executive Michael] West himself has used the term 'embryo.'"
But it looks like West and his colleagues will not be saying "embryo" in the future. ACT's executives are smart people who anticipated that many outsiders would see their embryo-farm project as an ethical nightmare. So ACT assembled a special task force of scientists and "ethicists" to develop linguistic stealth devices, with which they hope to slip under the public's moral radar.
As Weiss reported it, "Before starting, the company created an independent ethics board with nationally recognized scientists and ethicists. . . . The group has debated at length whether there needs to be a new term developed for the embryo-like entity created by cloning. Some believe that since it is not produced by fertilization and is not going to be allowed to develop into a fetus, it would be useful to call the cells something less inflammatory than an embryo."
"Embryo" is merely a technical term for a human being at the earliest stages of development. Until now, even the most rabid defenders of abortion on demand had not objected to the term "embryo" as being "inflammatory." But apparently ACT's experts have concluded that before the corporation actually begins to mass-produce human embryos in order to kill them, it would be prudent to erect a shield of biobabble euphemisms.
Thus, "These are not embryos," the chair of the ACT ethics advisory board, Dartmouth University religion professor Ronald Green, told the AP. "They are not the result of fertilization and there is no intent to implant these in women and grow them.''
Further details on the ACT linguistic-engineering project were provided in an essay by Weiss in the July 15 Washington Post. It disclosed that one member of the ethics panel, Harvard professor Ann Kieffling, favors dubbing the cloned embryo as an "ovasome," which is a blending of words for "egg" and "body." But Michael West currently likes "nuclear transfer-derived blastocyst."
Green revealed his own favorite in the New York Times for July 13. "I'm tending personally to steer toward the term 'activated egg,'" he told reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg.
In my mind's eye, I imagine Green at ACT corporate headquarters, somewhere in the marketing department, stroking his beard and peering through a one-way window into a room in which a scientifically selected focus group of non-bioethicist citizens have been assembled to test-market "ovasome," "activated egg," "nuclear transfer-derived blastocyst," and other freshly minted euphemisms.
But setting that image aside, Green's statement to the AP has me seriously confused. He said that the anticipated cloned entities are "not embryos" because (1) "they are not the result of fertilization," and (2) "there is no intent to implant these in women."
Let's consider the "intent" criteria first. Green seems to suggest that a living and developing embryonic being, who is genetically a member of the species homo sapiens, can somehow be transformed into something else on the basis of the "intent" of those who conceived him or her. This seems more akin to magical thinking than to science.
If "intent" is what determines the clone's intrinsic nature, then what if a human clone is created by someone who actually does have "intent" to implant him or her in a womb? In that case, would Green consider that particular clone to be an "embryo" from the beginning? If so, an ACT scientist hypothetically could create two cloned individuals at the same time, with intent to destroy one and intent to implant the other, but only the latter would be a "human embryo" in Green's eyes.
Or -- since "intent" may be uncertain, or could change -- does the magical transformation into an "embryo" occur if and when the embryonic entity actually is implanted in a womb?
It seems, however, that Green may not regard the clone to be a human embryo even after implantation in a womb, because the in-utero clone -- although he or she would appear to the layman to be an unborn human child -- would still bear the burden of not being "the result of fertilization." Perhaps Green would prefer to refer to such an unborn-baby-like entity as an "extrapolated activated egg."
But what if that clone is actually carried to term and born? Would Green then consider him or her to be a "human being"? Could be, but I fear that the professor's logic might lead him to perceive a need for a new term for any baby-like entities and grown-up-people-like entities who were not "the result of fertilization."
How about calling them "activites" (pronounced "AC-tiv-ites")? That would link "activated egg" with "vita," which is Latin for "life," and it even smuggles in the ACT corporate acronym. I think I'm getting the hang of this.
Green is a liberal-minded fellow, so I'll bet he would allow such activated human-like entities to vote, obtain Ph.D.s, and maybe even be awarded tenure. But perhaps they would be required to sign their letters "Ph.D. (act.)," so that they would not be confused with other tenured entities, such as Professor Green, who are fully fertilized.