"Embryo-like Entities" and the
Corrosive Power of Euphemisms
By C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D.
Words are powerful tools. They can be used as a shield or a weapon. They have incited revolutions, shaped nations, and thrilled readers. They are the stuff of which most human communication is made. Nowhere is this more evident than in the latest development in human cloning and embryonic stem cell research.
Scientists at Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced July 12, 2001 that it has begun experiments to clone human embryos to harvest their stem cells. Not only does this signal that the clone age has arrived on American soil, but ACT's use of euphemisms to describe its research is simply remarkable.
According to linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge in their volume Euphemism & Dysphemism, "a euphemism is used as an alternative to a disprefered expression, in order to avoid possible loss of face: either one's own face or, through giving offense, that of the audience, or of some third party." In other words, a euphemism is a word game used to take the sting out of a practice or behavior we would otherwise find offensive or reprehensible.
Apparently, Advanced Cell Technology is not only about inventing new procedures, but about inventing new words, euphemisms to be exact. ACT is calling the subjects of its research "embryos or embryo-like entities." What is an "embryo-like entity"? Does it differ biologically from a human embryo? NO. It's a euphemism. According to Rick Weiss's Washington Post story, "The group 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." Something less inflammatory than an embryo? The term "embryo" is hardly inflammatory. What ACT is planning to do to the embryo is what it is trying to hide by calling him or her an "embryo-like entity." Ronald Green, chair of the company's ethics advisory board, said, "We're not trying to evade anything here . . . But think about it. There was a time when a 'mother' was the genetic mother, the gestational mother, and the birth mother. But now technology like surrogate motherhood is separating out those things that used to go together. The same is true for what we've been calling the 'embryo.'" Let's see. If we follow that logic, we should call surrogate mothers "mother-like entities" or "womb-like gestational sites." This is worse than sophistry, it is linguistic evil.
We've been down this road before and it smells like the smoke of burning human flesh. In fact, during World War II, the Nazi doctors became extremely adept at inventing euphemisms to disguise, even sometimes from themselves, the horrors they were perpetrating against humanity. To justify Operation T-4, a euthanasia campaign that would make the Dutch blush, they used words like "mercy killing," "liberation," and "life not worthy of living" to describe the mass killing of mentally retarded persons and the disabled. Some of the doctors even called Jews "human ballast" in order to justify their destruction. Robert Lifton calls this "detoxifying language," language meant to sanitize a practice which was so repugnant that, to call it what it was, would cause the world to vomit collectively.
And so we did. When the Americans liberated Nazi Germany and the abuses were made known, we all understood the corrosive power of euphemisms.It matters what ACT calls its research subjects. It matters because the world needs to know exactly what it is up to in its labs. If it is are doing destructive human embryo research, it should have the courage to admit it and not hide behind language. If ACT is cloning human beings, members of the species Homo sapiens, it should own up to it rather than cloaking its experiments in language invented to lull society to sleep. If it is combining human DNA with animal DNA to create chimeras, human- animal hybrids, it should tell us in no uncertain terms.
Decisions about the morality of human embryo research and human cloning are not for a few scientific elitists to make. This is about the future of humanity as we know it. This is about our children being used as research subjects. This is about our human progeny being used as guinea pigs in someone's big summer science project.
The stakes are gargantuan and together we have to decide how we will regulate this kind of research. Just because ACT does not receive government funds doesn't mean its research cannot be regulated effectively. It can still be made illegal, just as it is illegal for you and I as public citizens to carry a little plutonium in our briefcase. And even if recourse to legislation is not the way to go, the American public has powerful ways of repudiating practices we find abhorrent.
But first, we have to make it clear that, hide behind whatever linguistic devises they choose, we know exactly what ACT and its like are up to. A rose by any other name is still a rose. And a human embryo is a person is a tiny baby, not an "embryo-like entity."
C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is senior fellow of the Center for Bio- ethics and Human Dignity in Bannockburn, Illinois. He may be contacted at (847) 317-8022.
Editor's note. Subsequent to Mr. Mitchell's column, further details were provided in a July 13 Associated Press dispatch. AP biotechnology writer Paul Elias wrote, "So far, Advanced Cell has yet to obtain a stem cell with this technique. Chief executive Michael West, a Geron co-founder who left for Advanced Cell last year, said the company has not yet created embryos. Many scientists consider the results of Advanced Cell's technique to be human embryos, since theoretically, they could be implanted into a womb and grown into a fetus.
"West himself has used the term 'embryo.' However, his ethical advisers prefer [other terms]. 'These are not embryos,' said the chairman of Advanced Cell's ethics advisory board, Dartmouth University religion professor Ronald Green. 'They are not the result of fertilization and there is no intent to implant these in women and grow them.'' [emphasis added]
In the New York Times (July 13), Green was quoted as saying, "I'm tending personally to steer toward the term 'activated egg.' "