The Scientific Activist

The conservative movement has been notoriously effective at co-opting language for its own benefit, either by turning the meaning of commonly used words upside down or by injecting new words and phrases into the national dialogue. The use of some loaded language in a recent New York Times article by Pam Belluck on Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick’s new stem cell proposal demonstrates just how well these tactics have worked:

These states are all seeking ways to get around the Bush administration’s restrictions on federal financing for embryonic stem cell research, which were imposed because President Bush objects to the necessity of destroying human embryos in order to create the stem cells.

Massachusetts in 2005 enacted a law authorizing embryonic stem cell research but did not authorize any financial incentives. Mitt Romney, who was then governor, was opposed to creating new stem cells because of the destruction of embryos involved.

(Emphasis added.)

Describing embryonic stem cell research as “destroying embryos” is far from objective, and such a description–especially in two consecutive paragraphs–should be much more at home in a piece of Republican Party propaganda. Instead, the author could write that “President Bush objects to the necessity of what he calls the destruction of human embryos” or that “President Bush objects to the use of human embryos.” Calling the deriving of a stem cell line from a frozen embryo destined to remain frozen for an eternity “destruction” is not meaningful and lets one side of the debate unfairly control its tone.

This isn’t the first time I’ve commented on poor media coverage of the stem cell debate, and instances of this sort of misleading language abound. I’m not saying that any of these reporters are doing this intentionally, but whether or not they are cognizant of this fact, they are making themselves pawns of the conservative movement. Scientists and media watchdogs should not give the press a free pass on this sort of unimpressive and counterproductive journalism, especially as the future of H.R. 3/S. 5, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, still hangs in the balance.


  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    May 9, 2007

    The Republicans, of course, have the same advantage in arguments on this issue that they have in past ones: while they can very easily cause confusion, it’s up to legitimate scientists to clean it all up (which takes longer).

    To be perfectly honest, it’s tempting to just say we should sink down to their level. Instead of going through the arduous effort needed to increase public understanding, just get in the press and say things like “we don’t think saving cell colonies is as important as curing sick people.”

  2. #2 Karl
    May 9, 2007

    It’s called “Framing”. Ask PZ Myers to explain the concept.

  3. #3 Cornell
    May 9, 2007

    “Destroying human embryos in order to create the stem cells” are the buzz words for incompetents to prove their ignorance.
    In this way the third world courtiers will be ahead of us, and on top of that all good scientists will go and work for them.

  4. #4 Robert de St. Loup
    May 10, 2007

    I don’t understand. Are embryos destroyed or not? If they’re not, then it’s a lie, not “framing.” If they are, then this is merely descriptive language and perfectly objective as far as it goes. You may say, well, that’s irrelevant, because they were going to remain frozen forever anyway, or you may go further and say that an embryo consisting of only a few cells doesn’t arise to the dignity of human life so its destruction is outweighed by the benefits to real live humans of stem cell research (both of which points I’m very sympathetic to), but either way that’s an argument you must make.

  5. #5 Jerry
    May 10, 2007

    Yeah, I don’t understand the issue either. If the embryo is viable before the procedure to create a stem cell line and non-viable afterwards, the language doesn’t seem improper. It may not reflect the attitude you’d like people to have, but it doesn’t seem any more inherently dishonest than other bits of political wordsmithing that go on on both end of the political spectrum.

  6. #6 Beverly Nuckols, MD
    May 10, 2007

    There are living embryos – dividing enough to make the difference between the trophoblast and the inner cell mass obvious. These are “disaggregated.”

    The online medical dictionary defines disaggregate as


    1. A breaking up into component parts.

    2. An inability to coordinate various sensations and failure to comprehend their mutual relations.

    Origin: L. Dis-, separating, + ag-grego (adg-), pp. -gregatus, to add to something

    Sounds like the embryos are destroyed, when some cells are removed.

  7. #7 Mr. Gunn
    May 10, 2007

    All leftover embryos are destined to be destroyed. They will eventually be discarded when they’re no longer needed for the purpose for which they were created – to help someone have a child. The only difference is whether some cells are removed before it’s thrown away or not, so talking about destroying embryos is clouding this distinction, and is therefore dishonest, misleading speech.

    That’s the problem with it. Got it?

  8. #8 Beverly Nuckols, MD
    May 10, 2007

    Mr. Gunn,

    Your projection is “dishonest and misleading.” Go ahead and tell us the truth: that you believe the human embryo is only useful he or she serves your purpose.

    The original objection to IVF was this very point – the embryonic humans would cease to be an end in themselves, and become a means to an end, the “purpose for which they were created.”

    In the ’70’s, we were assured that human embryos would only be used for their original “purpose.” Next, we were promised that the extras were to spare mom extra procedures – they were “insurance.”

    Then, when the subject became “human embryonic stem cells,” the argument was that only the “spare” human embryos would be used. Currently, several labs in the US create embryos for the sole purpose of (ahem) destroying them in order to harvest their body parts.

    You’re skipping right over 10 years’ debate on BTW, cloned human embryos and the recent petition to create embryos using human nuclear DNA and the oocytes of cattle, rabbits, etc.)

    “Got it?”

  9. #9 Bob
    May 11, 2007

    “Destruction” strikes me as a relatively neutral, unloaded term. In contrast, stem cell opponents would use much more loaded terms, from “killing embryos” all the way up to “murdering babies” in the most extreme rhetoric. From their point of view, “destruction” is loaded the opposite way, since it implies an inanimate object. (Personally, I would object to someone saying “destroying a pit bull” but not “destroying a nest of eggs”.)

  10. #10 Lisa-Ann
    May 11, 2007

    Destroying human embryos is linguistically correct. They are human embryos, and they are being destroyed when the stem cells are harvested.

    Whether there were already slated for destruction is irrelevant. Whether you like the phrasing of those words is also irrelevant. Using those words is neither incompetent nor ignorant. It is accurate. Language is communication, and it’s impossible to communicate if you and I mean different things when using the same words.

  11. #11 Nick Anthis
    May 11, 2007

    I think we’ve all taken high school English here, so hopefully we understand the difference between the denotative and the connotative meaning of a word. Clearly the word “destroy” carries certain connotations that are in line with the arguments of those against embryonic stem cell research.

  12. #12 Rebecca
    May 11, 2007

    “Destroy human embryos” seems to me an accurate term since that is what has to happen for an new embryonic stem cell line to be created.

    It seems to me that there is more loaded and inaccurate language on the pro-cloning and pro-embryonic stem cell research side.

    Embryos are often called “clumps of cells” which hides the fact that they are human organisms, albeit still early in development. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is said to create “altered eggs” instead of cloned embryos. Or that SCNT clones just “cells” not embryos from which cells are extracted. The Maryland legislature just replaced the word “embryo” in an embryonic stem cell funding bill with the phrase “certain material” to gain support and push the funding through without controversy.

    I’d say that calling a distinct human organism like an embryo “certain material” is not only loaded, but entriely inaccurate and misleading.

  13. #13 Nick Anthis
    May 11, 2007

    1) No one should be surprised that advocates on either side color their language to help bolster their point. 2) This is a scientific issue, and the language you mention sounds better-suited to this discussion than “destruction of embryos”.

  14. #14 Minerva
    May 12, 2007

    The embryo IS destroyed during the stem cell extraction process – though I generally use ‘deconstructed’ … either way it can no longer returned to the original state.

  15. #15 Mr. Gunn
    May 14, 2007

    Nick, you can’t get into the game of trying to pick out who’s more biased, because there’s a bit of that on both sides, obviously. The real disingenuous bit is all the maneuvering to hide the fact that it’s a religious position they wish were legislated upon to begin with.

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