Human embryo research and the language of moral uncertainty

William P. Cheshire

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


In bioethics as in the sciences, enormous discussions often concern the very small. Central to public debate over emerging reproductive and regenerative biotechnologies is the question of the moral status of the human embryo. Because news media have played a prominent role in framing the vocabulary of the debate, this study surveyed the use of language reporting on human embryo research in news articles spanning a two-year period. Terminology that devalued moral status—for example, the descriptors things, property, tissue, or experimental material—was found to outnumber fivefold those that affirmed any degree of moral status above that of inanimate cellular matter; for example, living, human life, or human being. A quarter of the articles failed to note that the embryos under discussion were human. These findings confirm that even among scientific and philosophical experts a diversity of opinion exists on society’s moral obligations to nascent human life. The skewed linguistic distribution also indicates a distinct bias. Concerned readers should take notice when any category of humanity becomes subject to prejudicial and disparaging language and the value of vulnerable human life is trivialized alongside sensational assertions of anticipated medical cures. The responsibility for holding the media to a higher standard of truth and fairness falls to us all.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-5
Number of pages5
JournalAmerican Journal of Bioethics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2004


  • Embryo stem cell research journalism semantics personhood

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Health Policy


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