In a wonderful commentary aptly titled "Evasive Language Results in Suboptimal Outcomes," John Leo assaults the manner in which language is used to obscure the truth—rather than to tell it. He is not concerned simply with biotechnology, which makes his biotech examples even more telling. This isn't a pro-life argument; it's a commentary on the debasement of public discourse that comes from avoiding calling things by their names.

This retreat into euphemism and evasion can be amusing and also, at the same time, very serious:

Massive layoffs in the auto industry have given us "volume-related production schedule adjustment" (GM usage) and "career alternative enhancement program" (Chrysler usage). And when the boss says, "We have to leverage our resources," he means, "You will be working weekends." If you don't, you risk being "deinstalled" (fired).

He cites William Lotz's book The New Doublespeak for many of his examples. They run all the way from "adult" entertainments and various politically correct evasions to "hull loss" for an air crash. Some will recall when "wardrobe malfunction" was recently added to the language.

But the most potent examples he gives come from the human life agenda:

Just as "abortion" has virtually disappeared from the names and language of abortion-rights groups, the word "embryo" is fading from the vocabulary of those who favor "embryonic stem-cell research." Since polls show that the public reacts negatively to the news that minute human embryos are created and destroyed in the research, the media now speak of "early stem cells." The troubling word "cloning" is fading too; "therapeutic cloning" is replaced by its technical term, "somatic cell nuclear transfer."

It's fascinating to see just what has been happening with the cloning debate. First, the pro-cloning advocates tried to neutralize an unpopular, sci-fi sounding word by adding an antidote "therapeutic." Surely, they reckoned, "therapeutic cloning" sounds OK. But the American public proved more resilient than they expected (and not as dumb); they decided that therapeutic cloning was still cloning. So the same people who had made up this deeply dishonest phrase went back to the drawing board. (Or, at least, they went back to K Street—haunt of high-priced Washington lobbyists—and tried some more focus groups.)

The results were—to be fair!—ingenious. Two bold moves were taken. First, "cloning" was redefined. No longer could it be allowed to mean what everyone once thought it meant: using the Dolly-the-sheep technology (technically called somatic cell nuclear transfer) to create an embryo. Using cloning to mean, well, cloning, would make it harder to argue the difference between cloning embryos to make babies and cloning embryos to destroy them for experiments. So cloning was redefined as "the implantation of the cloned embryo." Only implanted embryos are clones.

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This may seem like something out of Mad Magazine. But it is in fact straight from the main Senate bill used to prevent a cloning ban (sponsored by Hatch and Feinstein). When California's pro-cloning Proposition 71 was under debate, its sponsors tried to stop its opponents from using the word "cloning" in their criticism of what the proposition permitted—until a judge had the honesty to side with the truth.

Second, if a cloned embryo isn't a cloned embryo until it (he, she) is implanted, what is it? You need a new word. They could have run a nationwide competition to get the best ideas. It might have helped, since none of the options they have tried has really caught on. They have tried "activated egg," for example (you and I are merely "activated eggs" a few years down the line, come to think of it). They have played with various terms like "nuclear transfer" and "nuclear transplantation" (which also haven't caught on—and any focus group worth funding would tell you that "nuclear" is not the coziest term around anyway).

More than a dozen terms have been coined. It's almost as much fun as Soduku to scan the newspaper reports on anything to do with embryonic stem-cell research and look for the latest evasion. In Missouri, where a rerun of the Prop. 71 debate is in progress, an appeals court has just agreed to hear the argument over again. Let's hope the judges agree that debasing the currency of honest language will only undermine democracy.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Life Matters columns include:

The Pursuit of Enhancement | The latest from Brave New Britain. (Feb. 22. 2006)
Poaching Eggs | The latest sad story from the Korean soap opera—and a lack of Talent in Missouri (Feb. 17, 2006)
The State of the Human | President Bush sets out a vital agenda for ethics. (Feb. 2, 2006)
Are You My Sperm Donor? | Plus: Another Hwang turn, more small surprises, and other life ethics stories. (Jan. 26, 2006)
Breeding Humans Like Rabbits? | From the frying pan into the fire. (Jan. 20, 2006)
The Prospects for 2006 | Deeper into the (Christian?) biotech century. (Jan. 9, 2006)
Peter Singer Meets Dr. Hwang | The ethics of the Brave New World. (Jan. 5, 2006)
Bethlehem's Bioethics | Christmas in the early 21st century. (Dec. 22, 2005)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
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