Marketing experts understand the value of “branding,” the creation of a mental connection in the mind of a consumer between the product and its name, slogan and advertising design scheme. A successful marketing campaign creates an indelible symbolic embodiment of all the information connected to a product.
The news media’s manipulation of the public debate around abortion and embryonic stem cell research has worked along similar lines, creating automatic mental associations and connections. In 1900, for example, the word “abortion,” if one were ever to hear the word spoken or see it written, was automatically connected to “murder.” By 2000, the word’s association had been completely shifted away from the child to produce instantly in the mind of the hearer the phrase, “women’s rights.”
The spectacular success of the abortion movement’s “re-branding” of child murder has prompted its use as a model by apologists for embryonic stem cell research. Indeed, the latter is a natural development of the former.
In each case, the shift has been accomplished by a kind of journalistic sleight of hand, in which attention is drawn away from the nature of the act – killing an innocent human being – and re-branding the issue as “complex and controversial.” Stem cell research is “complex and controversial” we are told incessantly – journalists who cover science might even have a macro on their computer for the phrase; therefore, the common person cannot understand it or render a judgement.
Media promoters of the “complexity” school, confident of our intellectual sloth and modern man’s terror of looking a fool – combined with the already established non-connection between abortion and murder – can now be certain readers will never dare to connect embryonic stem cell research with the taking of innocent human life.
The heavy cloud layer surrounding the stem cell debate is created by the simple technique of erecting a cone of silence around the nature of the embryo itself and then conflating the different types of research. Never say what an embryo is and call all stem cell research “controversial,” regardless of its moral content, and the reader’s own assumptions and anxieties will produce the desired result.
A red flag, a brand, has been created to start the accustomed chain of thought from “controversial” to “complex” to “leave it up to the experts with PhDs.”
But, as U.S. pro-life apologetics training expert Scott Klusendorf has said, the embryonic research issues, including cloning, are simply not morally complex. “It comes down to just one question,” he writes. “Are the embryos in question members of the human family? If so, research that destroys them to benefit others is wrong.”
Hundreds, probably thousands, of examples in the media of this manipulation can be found in only the last year, but the template is now well enough established that one will suffice.
In early August, Britain’s Daily Mail produced an article on the practice of some European beauty spas of using injection of stem cells as the latest trendy anti-aging treatment. Titled, “A barbaric kind of beauty,” the article failed to distinguish which kind of stem cell treatment was actually “barbaric” and which merely foolish and irresponsible. It conflated the perfectly morally licit – though medically unproven – use of umbilical cord stem cells and the killing of 12-week-old children to use their body parts for cosmetic treatments.
Starting with the requisite mention of the media’s two standard paradigm diseases, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, Andrea Thompson sets up the punch line. “President Bush,” she writes, “has denounced stem-cell therapy, even for medical purposes, as ‘godless.’”
Did you catch that? All stem cell therapy is denounced by this pro-life president. It’s a lie, but a clever one that plays on the European anti-Christian and anti-American hatred of George Bush.
The branding is clear: oppose stem cell therapies – no matter where the cells come from – and you are a knuckle-dragging religious bumpkin standing in the way of advances in medical science.
The debates surrounding embryonic stem cell research have been characterized from the start by a tangle of inaccurate, deceptive and sometimes simply falsified information. In language that will be familiar to most pro-life activists, embryos are being called variously “balls of stem cells,” “pre-embryos” or simply “stem cells.” The humanity of the embryo and the real moral nature of the research is invisible behind a thick layer of verbal clouds.
The “complex and controversial” keywords have ensured that in the media, where all legislative debate is ultimately decided, feelings will trump facts and the research will continue unopposed by a principled public debate.
Media is heavily visually oriented and when pro-life advocates cannot hold up pictures of cuddly embryos, the debate is taken out of their hands. The public is left with a handful of slogans and a gut feeling that something warm and fuzzy is being pulled over their eyes.