An Embryo by Any Other Name? the Battle over Stem Cell Research Begins with Language

Article excerpt

The line penned by Gertrude Stein, "A rose is a rose is a rose," is often quoted. But I wonder if those who repeat the line realize that a rose of Sharon is actually a hibiscus and a rose moss is actually a portulaca--to name just b two "roses" that aren't.

My point is that what we name or assume something to be and what it is are not necessarily the same. That fact is critical to the thorny debate over what is currently called "embryonic" stem cell research.

On the one hand, opponents of embryonic stem cell research speak about "tiny embryos" as though we could put microscopic booties on them. On the other hand, proponents insist that these are just undifferentiated "cells" that do not yet have the status of personhood.

For people like me, concerned equally that no ghoulish, slippery slope experimentation take place and also that cures be found for afflicted children and adults, the debate is troubling. While it is tempting to shrug off the issue as "not my area of expertise," the fact that the issue is being legislated causes me to try to understand as objectively as possible what's involved.

Not so easy, as evidenced by the recent split between Senate Majority Leader William Frist and President George W. Bush on this issue. Well-credentialed, passionate scientists and bioethicists also line up on both sides of the debate.

No one disputes that a fertilized egg contains the genetic building blocks needed to develop into a human being. But opinions blossom into full-blown disagreement on the difference in moral status, if any, between "embryo" and "blastocyst." The latter occurs three to five days after fertilization when the fertilized egg forms a ball of dividing cells with an interior cluster of malleable, undifferentiated stem cells.

"When we began to talk about this, no one ever conceived that the egg and sperm would come together on a laboratory bench. So the term embryo was used to describe the fertilized egg. Now we've put it in the laboratory. Should we call it ... a blastocyst? Some would argue an embryo is an embryo and deserves protection," said Dr. Gary Pettett, a practicing neonatologist and program associate of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo. "Others believe that that fertilized mass sitting in a freezer becomes an embryo when it is implanted and begins its trip of potential human development. ... The crux of the conundrum we have right now: coming to a uniform definition of embryo."

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, explains: "An embryo in a dish is more like a set of instructions or blueprint for a house. It carries the information, but it can't build the house. For the cells to develop into a human being requires an interactive process in the uterus between the embryo and the mother."

That's the kicker. Unless and until the fertilized egg implants into the triggering and life-supporting environment of a human uterus (approximately five to seven days after fertilization) or a yet-to-be-developed mechanical womb, it cannot go beyond the blastocyst stage. …