When Harvard researchers Douglas Melton, Kevin Eggan, and George Daly announced on June 7 that they would pursue human cloning to produce embryonic stem cells for therapies, most headlines read something like this: “Harvard scientists to clone human embryos.”
That’s right: human embryos.
Since the secular press — taking its cues from the pro-cloning establishment — is normally unforthcoming on this point, one could have expected a chorus of headlines to read differently: “Harvard researchers to pursue therapeutic cloning” or “Harvard researchers to create embryonic stem cells.” While such headlines were not altogether absent, it was far more common to see headlines calling a spade a spade: these researchers will attempt to clone human embryos, destroy them, and then harvest their stem cells.
This sudden spurt of honesty in the media has gotten me to wondering whether the most hackneyed of all embryo-placeholder terms has not seen its better days. I am referring, of course, to the term “pre-embryo.”
The use of “pre-embryo” dates back to the early 1980s. Its purpose was to diminish the value accorded to the product of conception, IVF, or cloning prior to implantation in the womb, or during its first 14 days of development.
It’s probably no secret to NRO readers that the term “pre-embryo” is an unscientific, legal construct used to validate embryo-destructive research.
This was candidly conceded some eight years ago by Princeton molecular biologist (and ardent advocate of cloning and embryonic stem cell research) Lee Silver. In his 1998 book Remaking Eden, Lee concedes, “The term pre-embryo has been embraced wholeheartedly by IVF practitioners for reasons that are political, not scientific.”
With equally amazing candor, a July 2005 Nature editorial took to task the delegates of the International Society of Stem Cell Researchers for engaging in what the journal characterized as a “bizarre semantic debate” over the potential benefits of refraining from calling the product of cloning an “embryo.”
“It is true that ‘embryo’ is an emotive term,” wrote the editors of Nature, “but there is little scientific justification for redefining it: whether taken from a fertility clinic or made through cloning, a blastocyst embryo has the potential to become a fully functional organism.”
“And appearing to deny that fact” they continued, “will simply open up scientists to the accusation that they are trying to distance themselves from difficult moral issues by changing the terms of the debate.”
At a scholarly gathering last March, Dr. Maureen Condic, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, pointed out just how unscientific this term is.
Condic reported that, since the term “pre-embryo” was coined in the early 80s, approximately 198,000 papers using the term “embryo” have been published in the scientific literature. As of March 17, 2006, a search of the National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health “PubMed” database (the most comprehensive biomedical database in the world) for any use of the term “preembryo” or “pre-embryo” revealed the following.
‐A total of 309 publications using this term appear in the database.
‐Of the papers using the term “pre-embryo,” 282 are published in English. Of these, 96 are “non-scientific” articles (i.e., law reviews, commentary, ethics papers, etc.) leaving a grand total of 186 “scientific,” English-language publications that have used the word “pre-embryo” in any form in the nearly twenty years since it was coined.
‐The term “embryo” is used in a total of 345,344 publications (excluding the publications in which both “pre-embryo” and “embryo” appear).
‐If we exclude papers not published in English, the term appears in 214,614 publications since 1986.
All of this suggests that the term “embryo” is used approximately 1,000 times more frequently than the term “pre-embryo,” and a significant percentage of the papers using the term “pre-embryo” are not scientific publications. (In fact, fully 41 percent of the papers published since 2000 using the term “pre-embryo” are non-scientific). Scientists simply do not use the term “pre-embryo” because it does not make a biologically meaningful distinction.
The term’s death knell is further suggested by recent scientific findings that fly in the face of the contention that the human embryo, prior to implantation, is merely a “ball of cells.” A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that, as early as the two-cell stage, this new organism already has a top, bottom, front, and back — albeit only chemically discernible.
We should take heart that this new willingness to call an embryo an embryo might indicate that our contentious national debate over embryo-destructive research is now hitting a critical zenith of coherence.
Will that make a difference as Americans stand at an unprecedented moral precipice and consider whether to usher in the era of research-driven creation and destruction of human embryos en masse?
At least it gives us some margin of hope that a growing majority of Americans, unencumbered by language games, will take a hard, honest, and unambiguous look at what’s at stake — and back away from the precipice.
–Fr. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person.