Embryonic discourse: abortion, stem cells and cloning.

Author:Dolgin, Janet L.
 
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Abstract: This Article interprets the debate about abortion and the debate about embryonic research and therapeutic cloning as aspects of a larger history of ideas. The Article suggests that embryos increasingly stand for different truths in discourse about abortion on the one-hand and about embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning on the other. More specifically, the Article suggests that the contemporary debate about the meaning of the embryo in the context both of abortion and of embryonic research bespeaks a widespread transformation in Western, and especially American, society during the last three or four decades. At base, that transformation involves displacement of an understanding of personhood, particularly in domestic settings that depended on the submersion of individualism with an understanding of personhood that values autonomous individuality and that envisions community as the consequence of individuals' distinct choices rather than as a pre-existing, hierarchically structured whole.

  1. Introduction

    Two debates, one about abortion and the other about embryonic stem cell Research (1) and therapeutic cloning, (2) are being conflated in social and legal discourse. The two debates resemble each other. Within each, society has fashioned a context for discourse that allows people to entertain and dispute the scope of personhood and the parameters of community. Moreover, public disagreement within each debate has focused around the meaning of the term embryo. (3)

    Those similarities notwithstanding, this Article argues that a fundamental discontinuity distinguishes the two debates. The debate about abortion, framed in response to the needs and demands of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, concerns the preservation of a world view that valued hierarchy, fixed roles, and communal solidarity more than equality and choice--a world view that had been relegated mostly to the domestic arena by the middle years of the nineteenth century. (4) The debate about embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning raises novel questions about personhood. This debate is being framed in response to very different needs and demands than those that defined the central ideological debates of the two previous centuries. In part, the needs and demands of the present century are being constructed in response to society's expanding capacity to disseminate information and to alter biological structures and thus to redefine the essence of being human. In particular, the debate about embryonic research (in comparison with that about abortion) largely assumes autonomous individuality and then focuses on and assesses the nature of the autonomous individual. (5)

    In order to disentangle the debate about abortion from that about research cloning and embryonic stem cell research, this Article analyzes the embryo-as-symbol and suggests that the panoply of meanings attributed to embryo serves to elide, or even disguise, the central concerns underlying the complicated, often volatile, and generally confusing debate about abortion and the emerging debate about embryonic research and cloning for the production of research embryos.

    Both cloning and embryonic stem cell research have focused public attention on the meaning and status of human embryos in contexts essentially unrelated to abortion. As a result, society and the law have begun to construct new understandings of the term embryo. Those understandings merge with and reshape old understandings. Thus, the politics of abortion are being transformed as society responds to developments in molecular biology, especially the advent of mammalian cloning in 1997 (6) and the isolation of human embryonic stem cells a year later. (7)

    Neither discourse about abortion nor discourse about cloning and embryonic stem cell research can adequately be interpreted apart from an underlying ideological shift in American society that became evident in the last decades of the twentieth century. (8) That broader underlying shift implicates the contours of personhood, family life, and community And in consequence, both debates (largely through interpretations of their shared central symbol, the embryo) serve as a pretext for entertaining broader disputes about underlying social goals and values.

    The politics of abortion have reflected disagreements about the status of fetuses and embryos, and even more fundamentally, disagreements about a set of underlying issues that include the legitimacy of feminism, the importance of gender in understandings of personhood, the value of so-called traditional forms of relationship within the domestic sphere, and the implications of displacing those forms of relationship with others that assume autonomous individuality in place of communal solidarity. For pro-life adherents in particular, the politics of abortion further (and sometimes mask) a broad agenda concerned with preserving a model of family lire and understandings of personhood that developed in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, the much more recent debate about embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning implicates understandings of personal identity and social relationships. It represents the swan song of an understanding of personhood that reflects the values of the Enlightenment and that bas served the needs of the Industrial Revolution. And it represents, as well, a new debate about personhood that assumes autonomous individuality even in familial settings.

    This Article interprets the debate about abortion and the debate about embryonic research and therapeutic cloning as aspects of a larger history of ideas. The Article suggests that embryos increasingly stand for different truths in discourse about abortion on the one-hand and about embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning on the other. More specifically, the Article suggests that the contemporary debate about the meaning of the embryo in the context both of abortion and of embryonic research bespeaks a widespread transformation in Western, and especially American, society during the last three or four decades. At base, that transformation involves displacement of an understanding of personhood, particularly in domestic settings that depended on the submersion of individualism with an understanding of personhood that values autonomous individuality and that envisions community as the consequence of individuals' distinct choices rather than as a pre-existing, hierarchically structured whole. (9)

    Part II of this Article briefly presents the scope of the contemporary social and legal debate about embryonic research, including especially embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Part III outlines the ideological history of the debate about abortion and then describes the socio-cultural and legal frameworks within which understandings of the term embryo have developed. It explores the central contentions that have defined the debate about abortion since the second hall of the twentieth century. This Part also suggests that pro-lire groups may sometimes elide their own essential ideological interests in the effort to forge political and legal strategies for opposing abortion. Part IV returns to the issues raised by research cloning and embryonic stem cell research. This Part summarizes responses of lawmakers to embryonic research. Part V analyzes the parameters of the ideological divide that separates the twentieth century debate about embryos in the context of abortion from that now unfolding in the context of therapeutic cloning and stem cell research. This Part suggests that shifting understandings of embryo symbolize broad changes in social understandings of personhood.

  2. The Embryo In Science: Research Cloning And Embryonic Stem Cell Research

    Developments in science and technology beginning in the last years of the twentieth century have generated a new notion of embryo that has, in turn, facilitated novel conceptions of reproduction, sexuality, health, and relationship. (10) This new embryo, unlike the embryo of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is formed outside the human body; it can be created either through joining sperm and egg in vitro (11) or through the transfer of somatic cells into denucleated ova; (12) it provides for reproduction apart from sexuality; (13) it promises salvation for people now suffering or likely to surfer from serious illness or disability; (14) and it is a source of potential wealth for the fledgling biotechnology industry and the related, though more established, pharmaceutical industry. (15) This new embryo represents unprecedented forms of human reproduction and relationship and suggests novel approaches to health care that stimulate dreams of greatly expanded lifespans and even of immortality. (16)

    This Part describes the events that brought this new embryo into public consciousness. That happened dramatically in 1978 with the first successful use of in vitro fertilization to create a human baby. (17) This Part outlines relevant aspects of the development of reproductive technology after that time, the advent of somatic cell nuclear transfer in mammals in 1997, and the isolation of embryonic stem cells in 1998. (18) These developments have engendered the social construction of the new embryo. This notion of the embryo, in turn, has raised a host of moral conundrums and has spawned a widespread social and legal debate about the ontological status of embryonic lire that reflects aspects of the preexisting debate about abortion. (19)

    That preexisting debate depended centrally on assertions about the status of the embryo and fetus. Many of those assertions, especially from pro-lire adherents, are being sorely challenged by society's increasing readiness to support and use contemporary developments in molecular biology and medicine. (20)

    1. Reproductive Technology and In Vitro Fertilization

      In 1978, Louise Brown, the first baby conceived...

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