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Keywords:

  • science;
  • fetus;
  • media;
  • cloning

Abstract  How is the embryo defined, envisaged, imagined? Who speaks on its behalf, and how? Based on a study of UK press and TV news reporting, this paper identifies the rhetorical strategies used to assert competing ethical positions around embryonic stem cell research. We show how both sides in the dispute mobilise metaphors and use personification to recruit support; and how they promote different ideas about the embryo's significance, size, and social embeddedness and present competing narratives about its origins, destiny and ‘death’. The role of visual representation is key here. It does not follow the usual pattern whereby, in the abortion debate, those ‘on the side’ of the fetus display its image while those who are ‘pro-choice’ shy away from this. In the stem cell debate the pattern is inverted, highlighting the role of technologies of visualisation in defining what counts as human. Our analysis also shows how the media coverage marginalises women's perspectives, disregards more fundamental challenges to science, side-lines concerns about effectiveness or safety and curtails discussion of broader issues. We reflect on the media processes restricting debate in this way and conclude by identifying opportunities for a more inclusive discussion of science ethics.