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Caryl Rivers Headshot

Sex and Stem Cells

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What's in a name?" asked Will Shakespeare.

In an era of 24 hour news, plenty. The media narrative about an issue may be more important than the merits of the issue itself. Name something, and you own the discourse.

The right has been savvy about this fact, as the "partial birth abortion" story illustrates. The right was able to convince the public that pregnant girls and women were rushing to doctors in their eighth month, demanding that their fetuses be aborted so they could fit into a prom dress or go on a cruise. But there is no such thing as partial birth abortion--just several pretty disturbing procedures for dealing with late-term pregnancies that have gone badly awry and there is little chance the babies will be viable. Just one has been declared illegal, thanks to the "partial birth" frame.

So progressives have to find new language to support their agenda.

Take, for example teaching kids about sex. Compare the term liberals prefer, "comprehensive sex education," to the phrase conservatives adore, "Abstinence Only education." The former makes parents think about teachers showing kids how to put a condom on a banana. "Abstinence" is reassuring, creating the picture of chaste, worry-free teenagers sitting in the front-porch swing.

Of course, the reality is quite the reverse. Abstinence-only sex education programs are not effective in preventing or delaying teenagers from having sexual intercourse, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the US Congress, done by Mathematica, a research group.

Not only that, the Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that more than 88 percent of adolescents taking "virginity pledges" break them before marriage. Pledges delayed first sex an average of about 18 months for adolescents ages 14 to 16.

The really bad news is that teens who take such pledges don't use contraceptives when they do have sex, making them vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies. Pledging teens have the same rate of sexually-transmitted diseases as non-pledgers.

So I suggest the term "Values and Science Education." It sounds much warmer than the clinical term we now use, while still being accurate. It means we can teach kids both the values of abstinence and about the way to have safe sex if they do choose to be sexually active.

Everybody likes values, and the science is sorely needed. Abstinence Only education too often is just Scary Tales. A congressional staff analysis found in 2005 that 80 percent of such programs gave out "false, misleading, or distorted information." Congressman Henry Waxman pointed out that they treat gender stereotypes as scientific fact; and they contain serious scientific errors, such as the notion that abortion leads to sterility and suicide, that pregnancy can result from touching someone's genitals and that oral sex can give you cancer.

Another area where new framing is needed is stem cell research. Polls show that when people are told such research could cure diseases, they approve. When they are asked if they want to destroy an embryo to create cures, they disapprove.

So how about new, accurate wording to describe the entity used in such research. We need to promote the term "pre-embryo" to name the cells we are talking about. This research is often done on the blastocyst, a structure of 70 to 100 cells which, medical dictionaries, say, precedes the embryo. It is a huge stretch to call such collections of protoplasm viable human life.

Let's say that stem cell research could provide a way to regenerate damage to the spinal system--to make people like the late quadriplegic Christopher Reeve walk again, or cure Parkinson's, Altzheimers and other devastating diseases. Many people, perhaps most, would see the destruction of a "pre-embryo" as worth the trade-off for such an accomplishment. After all, on the moral scales we have, on the one hand, human beings who can experience agony and loss, and families in pain. On the other, a microscopic organism that can feel or experience nothing and that has almost zero chance of ever becoming a human being. But say, "embryo" and people visualize a tiny, nearly-fully-formed little human-- and the balance of the scale shifts.

Dr. James Dobson of the right wing Focus on the Family uses the term "embryonic humans" which also loads the argument. But scientists at Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts have developed a method for deriving stem cells from human blastocysts with a single-cell biopsy technique. "Until now, embryonic stem cell research has been synonymous with the destruction of human embryos," says Dr. Robert Lanza, Vice President of Research & Scientific Development at ACT. "We have demonstrated, for the first time, that human embryonic stem cells can be generated without interfering with the embryo's potential for life."

The technical name for the procedure is Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). Maybe we can call it "Harmless Cell Extraction." Can James Dobson argue that taking a single cell from a blastyocyst, leaving it's potential for growth unharmed, is murder? Maybe, but who would believe him?

Winning the war of words is more critical than ever before, and why should the right have a monopoly over the tantalizing turn of phrase?

Caryl Rivers is a Boston University Journalism professor, and the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England).

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