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Politicizing Science: How the UK Became Brave New Britain

Posted Apr 22 2009 12:11am
Please pardon this lengthy post, but in light of our recent conversations about the organismic status of the early embryo as biological human life, I thought it was worth discussing how and why the term came to be redefined to exclude early embryos from membership in the human race.

The story is recounted in a paper called, "The Triumph of the Pre-Embryo: Interpretations of the Human Embryo in Parliamentary Debate Over Embryo Research," published in Social Studies of Science, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Nov., 1994, 611-639). It takes place in the UK, and it explains how the the country devolved between 1984 and 1990 into Brave New Britain. More to the point, this sad saga illustrates vividly the power of inaccurate words to change moral perceptions--or at least provide a political rationalization for doing so. In fact, the ongoing and accelerating collapse in scientific and medical ethics in the UK (and elsewhere) came about by the adoption of simple rhetorical pretense-- that a human embryo isn't really an embryo.

We begin in 1982, when, in the wake of the birth of the first "test tube baby," the UK government set up the "Warnock Committee" to explore the ethical implications of this new technology. Choosing the crass utilitarian Baroness Mary Warnock to head the committee resulted in a predictable recommendation. From the paper ( here's the link to the abstract ):

[T]he Committee [in a divided vote] recommended that permission should be given for embryos to be reduced for, and to be used for, research up to the end of the first 14 days after fertilization.
Me: This was a deeply cynical tactic that has become a standard practice of the politicized science sector: Agree to prohibit only that which cannot now be done. Embryos can't be maintained out of a gestational environment beyond 14 days. Thus, the Committee's proposed ethical line in the ethical sand was utterly meaningless. It wasn't designed to actually protect any embryo, just give the appearance of restraint and control.

Back to the history: Warnock made one mistake: Her committee called an embryo, an embryo. Thus, when the issue was debated in Parliament in 1984, a political firestorm developed. Back then, it was undisputed that an embryo was a nascent human being. The principle of human exceptionalism and the sanctity/equality of human life still had heft. The public did not believe that human beings, even at the nascent stage, should be treated so crassly. The outcome was a route, with 51% of Labour and 88% of Conservative MPs voting for a total prohibition of embryo research.

Alas, that did not end the matter. As we have experienced in the ESCR/human cloning research debates of this era, the scientific establishment organized politically to push for embryo experimentation. Only six years later it obtained all that it wanted; a license to conduct embryo experimentation. Ever since, the UK never says no to "the scientists."

How did this happen? By creating the myth that nascent human beings are not human life at all:
Almost two years after the Warnock Report, Anne McLaren, the single embryologist on the Warnock Committee, wrote to Nature [arguing] "the embryo doesn't exist for the first two weeks after fertilization." What exists during this period is not an embryo, she claims, but "a mass of cells generated by the fertilized egg. Only after the first 14 days, she states elsewhere, "can individual embryonic development be said to begin."
This is biological nonsense, of course. But the point wasn't to provide the politicians and the public with accurate science from which to engage in rational analysis. It was to skew the politics and stack the deck in order to achieve a desired outcome. A pseudo scientific term was coined to carry the weight of this junk biology--and the "pre embryo" entered the lexicon.

That gave parliamentarians who wanted to authorize the research an excuse to do so. Human embryos were, suddenly, no longer human:
The spread of the term "pre-embryo" helped to resolve the moral problem of embryo research by convincing people and/or by enabling them to express their conviction that this was not, after all, research on human beings, but experimental use of an unformed, albeit human, bio mass.
This junk biology continues to dominate our ethics to this day--now justifying ESCR, therapeutic cloning, and eugenic manipulations on early embryos before implantation.

The Orwellian invention of the non scientific term "pre embryo" was a triumph of propagandist politics over scientific integrity. Worse, it introduced a cancer into the science sector that has subverted it ever since. Today, science often isn't science at all: It is ideological advocacy, with definitions changed almost at will to promote desired policy agendas and political outcomes. As the cancer spreads, broader areas of societal integrity have been undermined and rational democratic debate has been subverted. Indeed, anyone who trusts what "the scientists" tell us today just because they are scientists, hasn't been paying attention.
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