What’s in a Name?
The Language and Discourse of Human Embryo Cloning

by Sarah Sexton

first published 2 December 2001



In a conference about "techniques of reproduction", an essay on human embryo cloning is, in some respects, out of place. This is because most of those people who support a whole range of reproductive technologies that play out on and in the bodies of women -- IVF, PGD or PID, ICSI, GIFT, IUD (acronyms are important in this field) -- often justify their use by saying that they enable women to have children, to have their own genetic children (or those of their partner), to have healthy or normal children, to have the number of children they want, to space their children, and so on.

Those in favour of using cloning technologies in humans, however, have by and large learnt to emphasise that they are completely against their use in reproduction -- to produce children supposedly genetically identical to an existing human being.

Those that do want to use cloning technologies in humans for reproduction - Italian IVF doctor Severino Antinori has been most in the media headlines; he declared in October 2001 that he would come to Britain and produce a cloned baby by the following year -- tend to be roundly condemned, described as mavericks and discredited as renegades, not just by cloning critics and those opposed to women's access to abortion, but also by many in the scientific community and the biotech industry themselves.

Those in favour of using cloning technologies in humans have learnt to dissociate cloning from reproduction because they know that, since Dolly the cloned sheep was announced in February 1997, they're not going to get public acceptance, or even tacit approval, of putting the two together. And although it often seems that many governments, scientists and transnational companies do what they like irrespective of public opinion, these groups never feel that themselves. They are always looking over their shoulder to check where public opinion is at and, if needs be, manipulate it in their favour.

Public opinion in many countries around the world has generally demanded bans on using cloning technologies in humans. Thus those who see opportunities in the technologies, and in genetic research more broadly, have worked hard in the last few years to keep the public reassured and to get public approval for cloning techniques.

This essay explores some of the ways in which words have been used to get public approval and to give public reassurance, with varying degrees of success, and suggests why language matters. It also highlights the importance of considering who is using what language for what purpose. After all, several of those in favour of human embryo cloning call themselves 'life savers' while several of those who oppose it call themselves life savers as well.

Its focus is Britain because "the UK enjoys a leading international position in the resolution of these difficult questions".1 It does not ban all research, nor does it have no regulation at all. It steers a course through the middle ground, forbidding the worst and licensing the rest. Moreover, developments in one country, whether scientific, economic or political, affect others, particularly in an era of 'globalisation'. Legislation and practices in Britain have effects far beyond its island shores, while embryos, cloned or otherwise, funding and scientists can be imported and exported.

"Therapeutic" or "Reproductive"?

Dolly the cloned sheep was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. For humans, however, cloning is either "therapeutic" or "reproductive". The first is good, the second is bad; one should be allowed, the other banned; one is "morally unobjectionable", the other abhorrent. The word "therapeutic" suggests getting better, therapy, healing - all words with positive connotations.

The Wellcome Trust, one of the major British funders not only of genetic research and the human genome project but also of public attitudes to genetics, pointed out that 'gene therapy' is viewed far more positively than 'genetic engineering' or 'genetic research'. Gene therapy 'sounds quite friendly', said one participant they interviewed.2

This powerful and neat distinction is not between different types of cloning but simply between different potential "end uses". 'Reproductive' cloning might yield a baby; 'therapeutic' is everything else, but the main use cited is the extraction from the embryo of stem cells which could then be guided to develop into specific cells and tissues for implantion in someone with diseased tissues without the need for drugs to suppress their immune system (see Ingrid Schneider essay, this volume).

Almost all discussions of cloning, including critical ones, now employ this distinction between these different end uses of cloning. The distinction is essential if policymakers want to pass legislation to ban some uses but allow others. Most of the proposed legislation and regulation concerned with human cloning uses this distinction. (Legislation going through the US is one exception.) The linguistic distinction obscures the fact that research into one is research into the other, and that research into one paves the way for the other.

Many people take proposed legislation to ban cloning that might result in a child as simply that: a ban. In practice, however, it is the opposite. It is not a red light, but a green one, because a ban on so-called reproductive cloning implicitly gives the go-ahead to everything else, including research and practices which may not have been allowed before. This would seem to be the case in Germany where it is not cloning which is contested but embryo research.

Not only do cloning and biotech scientists, their funders and supporters want to keep the public reassured. They also know that they have more to fear from a public reaction to a cloning fiasco than from a cloning ban. Thus a ban, carefully worded, is in the interests of most of the scientific and biotech community.

The word "therapeutic" thus pre-sets the terms of the discourse and closes down avenues of exploration. Who could possibly oppose treatments, therapies and benefits? Who could morally oppose making sick people better? To facilitate democratic discussion and decision-making, public health advocates have suggested that 'therapeutic' cloning should more accurately be called 'cloning for research' or 'cloning for stem cells' or 'experimental cloning'.

"It's not cloning really"

This distinction between 'therapeutic' and 'reproductive' has certainly helped to gain more public acceptance for human embryo cloning. But a further tactic has been not to use the word cloning at all. If the word didn't have negative connotations before Dolly, it has certainly gained them since. As a British government consultation report on cloning acknowledges, "it is clear that the term 'cloning' carries an automatic stigma for many because of its association with imagery such as that portrayed in 'Brave New World'."3

Soon after Dolly, one or two scientists suggested the term 'nuclear transfer' instead. This option strengthened rather than lessened public opposition because of its associations with more shipments to Britain (or the Ventland) of radioactive nuclear waste for dumping or reprocessing.

Add in another word or two, however, and the phrase was revived as 'cell nuclear transfer' or CNR -- as pointed out, abbreviations in this field are important.

The former chief science and technology officer for SmithKline Beecham, one of the world's top pharmaceutical companies and a leader in genomic, wrote an opinion piece in the Financial Times newspaper about cloning without mentioning 'cloning' at all. Instead, he used the phrase 'somatic cell nuclear transfer'.4

But 'somatic cell nuclear transfer' is rather a mouthful and doesn't really communicate unless you already know what it means. So another term which is being used is 'regeneration', a word which has more positive connotations than 'therapeutic' or 'therapy'. (It can also be confused with 'resurrection', which brings to mind the film Alien Resurrection which is not as inappropriate as might first appear, see Claudia Breger this volume.)

Rather than "regenerative medicine" or "cloning", Professor Antinori prefers the phrase 'genetic reprogramming'.

Despite these attempts, 'cloning' is still the favoured term in the popular media, even if not in scientific journals. As one newspaper editorial pointed out, "when specialist language is substituted for plain English ... one can be sure that the authors are worried about something."

Embryos or cells?

The embryo has also been subject to linguistic gymnastics. In the 1980s, during debate in Britain about whether or not to permit research on embryos in the laboratory, proponents of embryo research introduced the term 'pre-embryo' for the entity up to 14 days old. The intention was to suggest that the potential subjects of laboratory experiment were not proper human embryos. Once legislation had been passed allowing such research, the term disappeared; it had fulfilled its purpose.5

It has been replaced in cloning discussions by 'a bundle of cells no bigger than a pinhead'. As the liberal newspaper, The Guardian, writes, "The question ... is whether scientists should be able to carry out experiments on a particular kind of human cell in the hope of treating serious degenerative illnesses such as Parkinson's and Alzeimhers. Given that there are trillions of cells in the human body, and we slough off millions of them every day as we shed dead skin, that does not seem so controversial."6

Instead of embryo, some US cloning scientists now talk about 'activated egg cells' or 'activated cells'.

To Be or Not to Be?

A final example about the use of words concerns verb tense. When discussing cloning and related developments, many people, including critics, use the present tense, as if all these technologies are already feasible and being applied, or they use the future tense, as if it's simply a matter of time, more research and more funding before they will happen.

If the public and policymakers think that tailor-made tissue transplants are a reality, it's much harder to raise critical questions. If they think they will happen, the sense of inevitability easily generates apathy. "Why bother to complain? They'll do it anyway. We can do nothing about it." The British have been rather good at 'colonising' in the past, but now they (and others) seem to be 'colonising the future' as well.

By not using the conditional verb tense -- "might" or "could potentially" -- discussions unwittingly give power and advantage to those eager to pursue this route.

Engineering of Consent

Analysis of the use of language is more than an interesting academic diversion or "semantic haggling". Use of certain words rather than others helps to get public acceptance for these technologies, to channel debate in certain directions, to make sure that some things get discussed and some things not. As Wellcome Trust research into public perspectives on human cloning concluded, "the language chosen when describing scientific research has a major impact on participants' responses to the ideas."7

The use of 'therapeutic,' for instance, the emphasis of benefits and the predetermination of what these benefits are - you can always find someone who will benefit from something - has distracted attention and funding from the causes of the ill-health and diseases which the potential applications of cloning might treat.

Many of those diseases that research into embryonic stem cells, it is claimed, would ultimately treat -- heart disease, Parkinson's, Alzeihmers, liver disease, diabetes, strokes and, of course, cancer -- are described as the diseases of old age. As a scientist at ACT, the US firm that claimed in November 2001 that it had cloned human embryos, said, these 'potential' treatments could 'turn back the clock in aging and cure disease'.

The ACT chief executive has said that human embryonic stem cells 'could be used to address the tidal wave of age-related disease that will accompany the ageing of the population'.8 His claim is another example of 'colonising the future' - generating fear about the future unless we all follow a certain path, usually presented as the only alternative, helps get public acquiescence for that path. In this case, fear of our societies being swamped by raging grannies -- the majority of older people are women.9

Yet being healthy in old age is much more a matter of clean water, clean air, clean food, decent housing and a decent livelihood all life long. Research published in 2000 shows that thousands of people die prematurely each year in Britain, the fourth wealthiest country in the world, because of unemployment, child poverty, and inequality of income and wealth -- all factors directly related to government policies, legislation and the allocation and use of public money.10 Much of the cloning research in Britain has been initially funded by public money.

Other questions that fall by the wayside are whether everyone would have access to these technologies or just the few who could afford it? How would we have to change the ways in which our societies are organised to get these benefits?

When is a clone not a clone?

Words also matter in legislation. How is a law allowing, restricting, regulating or banning cloning going to be phrased?

The United Nations, for instance, will begin talks in 2002 on a draft treaty banning 'the cloning of humans', an initiative proposed by France and Germany. Clones are organisms genetically identical to each other. But in the Dolly method of cloning, the egg cell also contributes DNA to the resulting organism. Any offspring resulting from the process is not, according to the scientific definition of cloning, genetically identical to an existing organism - technically, it would not be a clone.

Does a law that uses the word cloning cover cloning, therefore? Some of those in favour of cloning argue that, because the Dolly method does not yield a clone because the resulting organism has DNA from the replaced nucleus and from the egg, any legislation using the word cloning does not cover organisms created using the Dolly method.

This is why legislation rushed through the British Parliament in November 2001 makes it an offence to place in a woman not a 'cloned' embryo, but 'a human embryo which has been created otherwise than by fertilisation'.

If a clone is not a clone, is an embryo an embryo? A judge ruled in mid-November in Britain, in response to a legal challenge, that the 1990 legislation governing all embryos outside a woman's body does not in fact cover human cloned embryos. The legislation defines an embryo as 'a live human embryo where fertilisation is complete' and 'an egg in the process of fertilisation'. In the Dolly process, however, no fertilisation is involved. According to the letter of the law, no fertilisation, no embryo.

This means that, at present, there is no legal or regulatory control in Britain over cloned human embryos. Scientists do not need a licence (as they do for embryos) to produce or experiment on cloned embryos, nor to export them. The intention of those bringing this legal challenge was to ensure that legislation is passed in Britain as soon as possible to ban human cloning. (The British government has said that it will appeal against this ruling.)

Some pro-cloning advocates in the US, however, are arguing along similar lines but with different intentions. They contend that not only is a cloned embryo not a clone, it's also not an embryo but an 'activated cell" and that therefore legislation (invariably restrictions) governing embryos and the funding of embryo research doesn't apply to their work.11


Words matter. As one satirical article commented in November 2001 on the public debate about genetic developments, words are so much more important than facts but scientists have a hard time grasping this truth. To strive for a consensus as to the correct words to use is to miss the point. What is at issue is the power of words, how they can be used, and who uses them for what purposes. Critics of cloning also choose certain words over others to persuade the public of their point of view.

But in many respects, cloning, even the embryo, is not really the point. If any of the potential treatments are realised from these technologies, they are unlikely to become commonplace. Other genetic and reproductive technologies are already having a much more immediate impact on people's lives, and on shaping people's perceptions of just what constitutes health and normality. Shining the media spotlight - even a critical one -- on cloning means that other far-reaching research and developments not only seem less controversial but also remain less scrutinised in the dark shadows. (Although as suggested, human embryo cloning does represent a make-or-break turning point for the biotech industry and its supporters: getting it approved sends a green light to all sorts of far less controversial research, while a ban or restrictions could restrict far more than simply cloned babies.)

But even these reflections seem to be a rather privileged diversion when one considers other recent media headlines: impending famine in Afghanistan; rising sea levels in the Pacific islands because of climate change; older people being refused health care because of their age; torture in police stations, to name a few. Is it or isn't an embryo does seem rather trivial in comparison.

Yet there are clear connections. Even if cloning does not become something accessible or desirable by all, discussions about it are part of far wider discussions and decisions -- including analysing who has the power to make these decisions -- about who gets to raise children and who not; who gets to be born and who not; who gets health care and who not; who gets to live longer and who not; who gets to die prematurely and who not. It is these considerations that link human embryo cloning to calculations by an international panel on climate change that a life in the US is worth 15 times that of a life in Bangladesh; to claims that Western governments cannot afford to support older people in future; to access to health care becoming a matter of ability to pay rather one of need; to states legislating in favour of euthanasia; to disputes about international trade rules deciding against precautionary public and environmental health and safety; to forced sterilisations and contraceptions of black, non-white women, again, to name a few.

Notes and references

1 "Cloning Issues in Reproduction, Science and Medicine: A Report from the HGAC and HFEA", Department of Trade and Industry, December 1998, www.hfea.gov.uk/docs/Cloning_Issue_Report.pdf

2 The Wellcome Trust, Public Perspectives on Human Cloning, The Wellcome Trust, London, 1998, www.wellcome.ac.uk

3 In Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, everyone comes from a test tube and their function in the society is pre-determined. DTI, op. cit. 1.

4 Poste, G., "How embryos can save lives", Financial Times, 1 June 2000, p.23.

5 Mulkay, M., The embryo research debate: Science and the politics of reproduction, Cambridge University OPress, Cambridge, UK, 1997.

6 The Guardian, February 2001/

7 The Wellcome Trust, op. cit. 2.

8 Michael West, quoted in Fox, M., "US Company Says It Cloned Human Embryo for Cells", Reuters, 25 November 2001.

9 Rogers, W.A., "Menopause: Is This a Disease and Should We Treat It?" in Donchin, A and Purdy, L.M., (eds.) Embodying Bioethics: Recent Feminist Advances, Rowman & Littlefield, New York, 1999.

10 Joseph Rowntree Trust, 2000.

11 The intent of the 1990 legislation would seem to be not to allow cloning or the genetic engineering of humans. It states that a researcher cannot be granted a licence to "replace a nucleus of a cell of an embryo with a nucleus taken from a cell of any person". In the Dolly process, however, it is the nucleus of an egg, not an embryo, that is replaced with the nucleus from another cell. In the November 2001 legal challenge, the judge said he could rule only on the wording of the law, not its intent.