Naming What We're Doing: A Case Study

There is a fascinating story in today’s Washington Post about an FDA panel debating the question of whether to allow genetic modification of human embryos to “insert” genes of a third person, when there are genetic defects in the original DNA. Quite apart from how this displays our ongoing hostility toward disability, it has produced the most fascinating set of headline developments I have ever seen. On the paper copy of the Post in my library, the headline reads: “FDA debates idea of three-parent babies.” On the Web, the headline is “FDA panel debates technique that that would create embryos with three genetic parents.” Gone are the three-parent babies. Instead, bring in the “techniques” and the “embryos”! But the headline on the Web front page is even further from the print: “FDA debates procedure that mixes DNA from three people to form embryo.” Hmmm. Is “procedure” a bit more medical and less manufacturing in its resonance than is “technique”? Does “mixing DNA to form embryo” work better than “parenting”?

Herbert McCabe wrote in his magnificent Law, Love, and Language that what ethics is really all about is not simply law or love; rather, it is about developing a language whereby we could see more and more deeply and richly into the genuine significance of human living. The headline variance here provides quite a test case!

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David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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