Lies, clones, and stem cells: the language of respectable evil

A breathtaking specimen of obfuscation (or was it just plain ignorance?) was published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) this week. The article, entitled, “Experiment Brings Human Cloning One Step Closer,” begins, “Scientists have used cloning technology to transform human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, an experiment that may revive the controversy over human cloning. The researchers stopped well short of creating a human clone.”

A little confusing, but it sounds innocuous, no? Transforming human skin cells into embryonic stem cells: that’s the ethical alternative to cloning a human for the purpose of destroying it and removing stem cells, right? At least they didn’t create a human clone, right?

Not so fast. If one refers to the original article published in the journal Cell this Wednesday, the title alone speaks volumes: “Human Embryonic Stem Cells Derived by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer.” Somatic cell nuclear transfer. That’s scientist-speak for cloning.

“The achievement is a long way from creating a cloned human embryo,” the WSJ article says.

Wrong again. The article in Cell describes, and the accompanying diagram shows, a process of creating a cloned human embryo, which at the blastocyst stage is “disaggregated” (destroyed) to remove embryonic stem cells. (If the WSJ didn’t think they created a cloned human embryo, how did they think they got embryonic stem cells from it?)

Not all the press coverage was as slanted/wrong as the WSJ coverage. The BBC, for example, reported it far more clearly.

I don’t know if the inaccurate reporting by the WSJ was motivated by ignorance; or by an ideology that says that “Embryos aren’t human and if you don’t implant it and grow a baby from it it’s not a clone”; or by a desire to confuse people by semantic sleight-of-hand so that they won’t understand what’s happening until it’s too late; or a combination of all of these, or something else altogether.

But just for clarity’s sake, let me paraphrase: We have clearly demonstrated, in a respectable, peer-reviewed journal (no National Enquirer here), that we as a society are willing to facilitate the development of human beings in a Petri dish, and then, when they are at their weakest, smallest, most vulnerable and voiceless, kill them and take their body parts in the hope that they might be useful for others of their species. We deliberately kill our young: not in a gas chamber or oven, as the Nazis did; not tied to an altar, as the Aztecs or Incas did; but in air-conditioned laboratories with bright fluorescent lighting and mild-mannered lab technicians and nice watercolor paintings on the walls in our most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

God help us.

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Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund
7 years ago

Absolutely. After seeing the WSJ story, I was intending to check out the Cell paper to see if there was any way the work could be interpreted as NOT having created an embryo fully capable of developing fully into a human baby, but Joe is not the first to pick up on the error. Check out the excellent post today, May 17, by Brendan P. Foht over at “The Corner” blog at National Review Online. Foht reminds us that we need not eschew scientific progress but all experimentation to that end must be ethical.

And make no mistake, this is (put one way) unethical experimentation on human subjects, which are to be afforded protection in biomedical experimentation, but which are being denied that in the work recently reported.

I agree with Joe that American society is fully willing to treat humans as products of manufacturing processes, and as raw materials for other biomedical projects. And I won’t bother to go into infanticide here.

John Kilner
John Kilner
7 years ago

You do a great job of flagging the language problem here in addition to the other ethical issues involved. Major newspapers need to be held to a higher standard of accuracy in reporting than WSJ has exhibited here. If you have the time, hopefully you can submit a letter to the WSJ editor. Whether it gets published or not, it alerts their editorial staff that a reporter is writing in a way that reflects inadequate scientific understanding or a bias so great that it renders reasonably objective reporting impossible.

Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund
7 years ago
Reply to  John Kilner

I shot off a brief letter to the editor. I also emailed the reporter who wrote the article. In the latter, I pointed out the false statement that Joe quoted, and provided a link to the ASRM’s fact booklet on IVF in support. Note that other outlets–e.g., NPR–got it right; NPR’s report included a quote from Dan Sulmasy.

I was remiss before in not having read the Cell article, which I downloaded (free on the journal’s web site) and read today. No surprises. Past human cloning had been arrested at the 8-cell stage; these got as far as blastocysts before they were destroyed in pursuit of the main goal of the work. Note that this stage is precisely the later end of the point at which, per the ASRM, embryos are transferred to the womb in IVF.

The Cell article ends with understandable, under the circumstances, speculation about whether ESCs derived from this route will be preferable to iPSCs. I imagine this will be the next frontier of discussion. (Note that if iPSC technology were used to support creation of a totipotent fertilized ovum, its use would have also crossed the bright line of defining the start of a new human life.)

Finally, the WSJ article included an implied sigh of relief that the birth of the first cloned human baby is not yet visible on our time horizon. No such sighs are warranted. To my recollection (and, I imagine, anyone else old enough to remember), the progress–technically, and in terms of public acceptance–of so-called “reproductive” cloning is on the same trajectory as was IVF before Louise Brown was born in 1978.

So, in a generation (maybe less), will the mainstream evangelical ethic be that cloning is an ethically acceptable option in the face of infertility faced by couples in Christian marriage?

Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund
7 years ago

Over at his Human Exceptionalism blog at National Review Online, Wesley Smith has a string of posts addressing the mis-reporting of this work in the WSJ and other venues. Worth checking out.