Watching Our Language: The Human Embryo Stem Cell Controversy

[1] The current human embryo debate seems ever so familiar to those who remember earlier controversies over human cloning, fetal experimentation, and abortion. Positions crystallize in familiar patterns; the same moral principles reappear; similar charges and counter-charges detonate. If we are at war — culture-wars — then these topics exemplify our hostilities. We are familiar with these battles. We’ve been there. Yet as best I can tell, we are not at odds normatively or factually. We share the same ethical principles of doing what we can to lessen human suffering, of respecting human lives, of supporting medical research. We all endorse research to find cures for diabetes, for Parkinson’s disease, for Alzheimers, for spinal cord injuries, and for whatever else might flow out of that cornucopia that we call the promise of human embryo stem cell research.

[2] Where we continue to disagree is over the human cost of such research, for we see, name, and acknowledge such cost quite differently. That difference lies neither in moral principle or norms nor in biological facts or relevant data but in diverging views of reality. We differ over metaethics, over the meaning of the realities we face. And therefore we disagree over the fitting language with which we describe and seek to resolve these issues.

[3] Much as with a kaleidoscope, different visions result not from the content (facts) of this optical instrument but from the alignment or meaning of the contents. We discern different patterns or meanings. If we were to describe what we see, our naming would differ as well. However, while we delight in diverse kaleidoscopic constellations, we insist on one true pattern when it comes to the earliest forms of human life. The analogy breaks down because in life not all visions prove delightful even if they are symmetrical.

[4] I shall attempt two tasks. First, to describe fairly — as much as in me lies — the diverging reality-visions underlying these debates. Opposing conceptions, not of what is but of what is important, explain both the familiarity and intransigence of our conflicts over the earliest stages of a human life. The tool will be analysis – analyzing key words for their assumptions and implications as well as probing their cultural origins. If successful, analytic clarity helps to understand our disagreements. But it will not resolve them. Secondly, I will argue that only one of these visions and ways of speaking resonates with biblical faith and Christian ethics.

[5] We make reality speak. To be sure, all our learning and gaining of any sort of knowledge come ready-made. The words and their meanings precede us. In medical ethics controversies, too, we learn the facts of human anatomy and embryology in established terms. Biological and anatomical language opens the world of early human development. Anyone with anything to say here must become familiar with these scientific facts and learn to speak this language. In this initial learning process, everything is already named, classified, in its scientific place. And that is as it should be.

[6] But scientific method, and therefore its language, stipulates empirical assumptions that exclude the valuing we insist on when it comes to all the rest of life. Our lives are too rich and multi-dimensional to be constrained within the scientific method or its language. An obstetrician using ultrasound would record her findings or communicate with her colleagues in terms of fetal development. But when the fetus moves in the womb, she would never use such language with a patient. “Look at your baby!” proves medically fitting, since medical practice is science joined with the oath to heal and help human beings. Moreover, only “baby” will do when it comes to parenting or the hope of parenting. That word, not “fetus,” bespeaks an invitation. Yet that one-word welcome will never do as science. Therefore practicing physicians must be bilingual.

[7] In stem-cell debates all say “embryo.” That’s what it is — in the sciences. But that this science-word should prove universal and ubiquitous in public policy and ethics has remarkable consequences. I shall concentrate on this word, since the worth of what it designates constitutes the heart of the issue. The embryo is the tiny initial form of mammalian life. Researchers “harvest” it – a self-endorsing and leading term reminiscent of ripened crops ready for the reaper. Letting this crop stand would constitute culpable neglect. This smallest of living beings is then “disaggregated,” divided into its constituent cells. For here the parts are worth more than the whole. Since none of us survives being taken apart, since the resulting stem cells cannot be put together again, the embryo dies. One would be hard-pressed, however, to find explicit words of loss, death, or sacrifice in this research literature.

[8] “Embryo,” the scientific label, reduces this being – the most neutral term that comes to mind – to its mammalian dimensions. Of course it is an embryo. Mice and men start that way. Yet when it comes to us or to anyone we care about, we resist being reduced to biological and empirical dimensions. Birth announcements and Valentine cards avoid science words — unless it were a spoof. But nobody is laughing that the only acceptable term for the way we all begin should be – “embryo.”

[9] Some years back a science fiction television program (was it Star Trek?) created an alien designation of human beings as “carbon units.” While not inaccurate, such naming did not presage harmonious interstellar relations. Such identifying has consequences. For these words resist humane coloring and will not accommodate human dignity, respect, valuing. And that’s the trouble with making scientific terms into the only way to speak.

[10] But embryo it is. Even “human embryo” remains a biological label and does not add any humanizing. The term does not presage harmonious inter-human relations. Embryo-talk distances us, the namers, from what is being named. The word separates us from them, though we were all once as they are now. It implies that we do not share any ties. “Blessed be the tie that binds” will never include embryos.

[11] If “embryos” are not tied to us nor we to them, then we have cleared the way for making good use of them. For in our secular culture, there is nothing more sacred than the likes of us. It then makes sense to speak of “spare embryos” and of embryos “left over.” If they are spare or left over, and if they are going to die anyway,[1] prudence counsels remedying such waste. And what better use than to dedicate them to the struggle against human suffering and diseases? Once classified as subhuman, embryos become commodified. At least in Texas one can now selectively buy fertilized human eggs, i.e., embryos.[2] If “embryos” should still hint of our own human origins, it seems prudent to reduce them to their originating elements, ova and sperm.

[12] So what? My point here is not that something has gone awry in such dehumanizing and commodifying of embryos. It is rather that we need to be aware that we have made key moral moves by what we say. We have made a metaethical or meaning-of-reality decision. We have decided the standing of this “thing.” Merely by naming? Perhaps without realizing it, we in effect pronounce a death sentence by using a perfectly good or unobjectionable natural science word in non-scientific contexts of public policy, law, ethics, and religion. The non-scientific use of “embryo” and its attendant vocabulary is the Trojan Horse that threatens not only human embryos but all who insist that the earliest versions of ourselves deserve more consideration than the rest of the animal kingdom that we study, eat, use, use up, and reduce to research material. Moreover, in doing that we also decided who we are. We are not like that thing.

[13] Attention to key terms in moral analysis is not mere semantics. It is, as word has it, where the action is. While it smacks of irresponsible subjectivism, I make a case that what we say is what we get. If it is true that reality does not come ready-made, except in the trivial sense that that is how we first learn, then naming makes decisive metaethical moves. Kant was right that we order all experienced reality through our concepts, words, and classifications. The meaning of the thing itself (Das Ding an sich) eludes us. Its naming and its meaning are our contribution. While Kant thought that such words and concepts rooted objectively in the nature of our minds, naming is our most fundamental creative and ethically accountable doing. Making reality speak is the most important move in ethics and law. Here is where decisive battles in ethics take place. Unavoidably, we also decide who we are morally and religiously when we baptize reality with words.

[14] If this is on the right track, if indeed words count in decisive ways and if all, from left to right, say “embryo,” then we can ascribe at least prima facie good faith to those who enunciate their “take” on things embryonic in (consistently) fatal ways. Certainly medical researchers use the language of their discipline and profession when they plead for funds. Public funding for their life’s work is facilitated by their professional language. And the promise of stem cell research, while also assuring individual careers, surely will be a world of good for all. Without public funds, American stem cell research will fall behind. Even now, we are warned, promising researchers are leaving for Britain and Australia. Their warning voices prove univocal – these things are embryos and embryonic stem cells. While deserving the greatest respect, researchers’ regard for human embryos is the value they place on the scarcest of human resources.

[15] Similarly, for all those for whom human rights and medical progress trump the importance of emerging human lives, biological terms prove to be a godsend. Human beings have no standing in the natural sciences. That holds for the earliest and smallest of human beings. But once born, we leave scientific labels behind and bestow standing and respect with legal and moral personhood. Well, there have been efforts to resolve the dilemmas of sustaining seriously handicapped newborns by labeling them as post-natal fetuses and postponing legal personhood till some time after birth. But such proposals remain still-born. We care about children once born, no matter what their condition. And if a child is harmed, we invoke its legal rights and insist that the state assume protective parental duties. Yet we remain ambivalent about them before they are born. Legally we do not offer standing or even the most basic of rights to human beings before birth. Their continued lives depend on the will of only one parent. Indeed, a cynic might congratulate newborns on their good luck. Of course without the help of congratulatory Hallmark cards.

[16] Embryos and fetuses are not like us. Our needs overshadow their lives. Why would that seem self-evident and reasonable to so many? One suspects two cultural sources. We all inherit from the Enlightenment. The Age of Reason and Liberalism revolutionized Europe and transformed political and social thinking. Here the fathers of our country found their political and legal bearings. That tradition focuses on the individual, the person, protects his or her right rights, insists on self-affirmation and self-realization, and conceives of community in terms of freely chosen commitments. The person – the golden word that bestows standing in law and ethics – is defined in terms of intellect and will. Here family links, flesh and blood, our bodily being play minor supporting roles. The self becomes disembodied, as it were. I think therefore I am. This vision and this language of persons and rights constitutes the default language of our culture. That leaves those human lives who do not yet or no longer think in a peculiar limbo. While it need not follow that those who do not think are not, they are clearly deficient in the one quality that counts most. They are not rational; they are not even selves. They are not like us.

[17] Surely a second cultural source, more ancient than the Enlightenment, also contributes to a disregard of human lives not yet mentally like us. Christian theology absorbed heavy doses of dualism early on. Here humans were both body and mind or soul. Not on equal and interrelated but in hierarchical and substantially different terms. In Neo-Platonic perspectives the body and the whole created order play subservient and secondary roles in a cosmic redemptive drama. God bestows and Christ redeems the soul. The body is to serve the soul, the soul commands the body. The soul reflects, serves, and glorifies God. At least that is its intended end, despite the cosmic struggle between angels and Devil for our souls. The body plays a minor role in this conflict. Suffering bodily pain can discipline the soul and bring us closer to God. Or it evokes despair and the triumph of Satan. Such dualism is not promising for those lives who are supposedly still mind- and soul-less. To be sure, some time before birth God infuses the unborn with souls – sooner for males than females. Such infusion implies a certain standing and respect. But it seems less than reassuring for embryos and fetuses.

[18] So much for at least noting the secular-religious confluence of two major western traditions that evoke our cultural ambivalence about human lives in their earliest stages. Given these sources of our own culture, it seems reasonable to grant that those who refuse to include those earliest of human lives within the language and law of a shared community really see it that way. Here dehumanizing embryo language is reality-fitting. Our cultural living past may also offer clues for why advocates of protecting the first versions of human life should so easily contradict and undermine their own cause by the way they speak.

[19] A more biblical outlook than either of these two cultural streams offers alternative visions of who we are and what we are for. While biblical texts may always speak with cultural accents, our own generation is rediscovering a God who creates and redeems not only human beings but the earth and all that is in it. That includes a new importance of the human body. Here human nature is earth animated by life-giving divine breath. The soul is simply the spiritual dimension of being human. In all dimensions – physical, mental, spiritual – we are mortal and return to dust. Also, at least within religious contexts, we see and appreciate anew the importance of covenantal bonds. Over against Cartesian atomism or a Liberal focus on the individual, we exist within communities. Most important, in biblical traditions the standing of a human life rests neither in its age nor in its rational capacity. Rather human worth arises from an external source in the creative and redemptive love of God. Not self-made, we are made for loving God, each other, and for tending the earth. While the promise of a resurrected life forms a part of late biblical traditions and of all Christian liturgies, the purposes of life focus on the here and now. It is the glory of mainstream Jewish ethics that it resists not only Christian dualism and other-worldliness but also rejects the liberal individualizing insistence that religion should remain private and non-political.

[20] When it comes to embryos and fetuses, biblical languages precede the nomenclature and method of the natural sciences. Biblically, all life originates and finds its standing in God. God’s promises of fruitfulness are both divine gift and command. Biblical names may be assigned even before conception. And once this promised life has a name, it could never be a mere embryo. God opens the womb. And not only Sarah but presumably her husband, kin, and all generations hence rejoice. Even an unexplainable pregnancy evokes Mary’s and Joseph’s affirmation. Mary conceived. And the Christian story begins. Though this birth is special, God has a hand in and is Lord of all new life. Enough. Biblically, our own and our offsprings’ beginnings cannot be reduced to or confined within “embryo” or “fetus” or any other scientific word or vision. How ever we speak, our words must leave room for love. Specifically our defining words must bear a family resemblance with God’s love that sides with the helpless, the shunned, the despised. No matter where on the life span.

[21] An anecdote. During my divinity school education, it was important for graduate students to remain childless since most of them were poor as church mice. Though the horseshoe-shaped housing for married graduate students was named The Fertile Crescent, residents hoped not to confirm that designation. Nevertheless, I received a written invitation to a conception party with these words: “Despite the best defenses of the Gentiles, the Lord is blessing us with a child.” Hoping here to avoid heavy-handed use of a light-hearted anecdote, it made perfect sense that conception should be celebrated despite the hardships to come. It was also fitting to celebrate that it was a child, not a “pregnancy.” Discrimination according to age – the unspoken judgment in the embryo debate – was unthinkable. The context of faith finds natural ways of including the earliest forms of human beings within the protective circle of its loving, speaking, and seeing.

[22] To conclude, key words in religious ethics must be faith-friendly. Therefore it cannot be merely “embryo.” That scientific and dehumanizing term deserves only adjectival status: “the embryonic human.” Believers need a richer vocabulary. “The very beginnings of an individual human being;” “the initial form of a child-to-be.” Inelegant. But for grownups learning how to speak can be hard.

[23] A postscript. It must seem strange to appeal to Jewish ethics when the older People of the Book and inheritors of divine promise currently seem untroubled by the definitive use of “embryo” and its consequences. It may not behoove a Christian to object here. But if we learn from Jewish scholars, may we not also question them? How then does the broad pattern of Jewish reluctance to speak for the earliest human lives – a hesitation that may echo rabbinic traditions – acknowledge central biblical life-affirming themes? If Jewishness be not merely a matter of faith but of generations, of lineage, flesh and blood, how do rabbinic and biblical traditions resonate with each other? If saving a child’s life is so important that it can be compared to saving all children, do not our obligations to them begin at their very beginning? If the Enlightenment liberated Jews for the first time as citizens with equal rights, if it is the hallmark of Jewish ethics to advocate for the rights-less and oppressed, why the silence about the dehumanizing and commodifying of human lives in their beginning?

End Notes

Gilbert Meilaender, “Spare Embryos: If they’re going to die anyway, does that really entitle us to treat them as handy research material?” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 007, Issue 47 (08/26/2002). Professor Meilaender was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Rob Stein, “‘Embryo Bank’ Stirs Ethics Fears: Firm Lets Clients Pick Among Fertilized Eggs,” The Washington Post, January 6, 2007, A01.