American society is currently involved in debates, often heated, concerning the issues surrounding the level of respect due to human life, particularly those lives which are just beginning and those which are nearing their end. In our representative democracy it is necessary that we have these debates and that we come to a just and equitable conclusion on the issues.

The terms and phrases used to frame these debates are critically important. The meaning of these terms and a common understanding of their meaning by all sides of the debate is necessary for the debates themselves to have any value and for any resulting conclusions to have any level of acceptance.

Because these issue involve increasingly complex scientific, social, and moral issues and because most of the debaters have personal experience with these issues the terms are often misunderstood or are understood differently.

More poisonously, many of these terms have been deliberately misrepresented by one or the other side of the debates. Often these misrepresented terms skew the debate dramatically. One example is the substitution of the term “SCNT” or “Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer” for the term “Cloning”. Polls have shown that this substitution of terms more than doubles the public’s acceptance of human cloning which they would otherwise reject. The result is that people are often being mislead into supporting laws and public financing which are contrary to their actual desires.

The impact of the misuse of the term “human Cloning” was made egregiously clear in the voting in Missouri in November 2006 to amend the State Constitution to “Ban Human Cloning” .  Voters approved the amendment not realizing that it in fact legalized human cloning in what was labeled as Therapeutic Cloning.


A Pro-Life Dictionary

In the interest of clarifying the commonly used terms and phrases Pennsylvanians for Human Life offers the following dictionary with a basic definition of each term. We also offer a highlighted listing of terms and phrases which have been misused in these debates along with a clarification.

PHL offers this dictionary with the understanding that it is incomplete and possibly incorrect and encourage readers to offer additions and corrections.

These are basic definitions of terms commonly used in biology and medicine with particular focus on those related to pro-life issues. In most cases (e.g. Cell) the definition is accurate but simplified to reduce detail. For some more controversial terms (e.g. Life, Pregnancy) the definition is taken verbatim from Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary




Biologically the life of a system begins at the moment of conception and ends at death


Permanent cessation of all vital functions including those of the heart, lungs, and brain.


A contained mass of protoplasm containing a nucleus


The biological growth process in which a cell divides and becomes two cells

Stem cell

Generally speaking a stem cell is one which, during mitosis can develop a new stem cell as well as another type of cell. This term is often used ambiguously. Successful applications of Adult Stem Cells are often described simply as Stem Cells. Opposition to the use of Embryonic Stem Cells is often described as opposition to Stem Cell Research.

Stem cell-Totipotent

A cell which can give rise to all other types of cells. A zygote is such a cell

Stem cell-Pluripotent

A cell which can give rise to most other types of cells. An embryo contains a high percentage of pluripotent cells.

Stem cell-Multipotent

A cell which can give rise to many other types of cells

Stem cell-Embryonic

A pluripotent cell obtained from a disassembled (killed) embryo. The opposition to the use of Embryonic Stem Cells is based on the need to kill a live human embryo to obtain these cells.

Stem cell-Adult

A multipotent cell from a still functioning organ. Adult Stem Cells can be obtained from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, and other organs without harm. Research using ASCs is supported by Pro-Life groups.

Stem cell research (SCR)

A legitimate and potentially highly valuable area of medical research. An understanding of the function and the malfunction of stem cells is and will be producing very promising advances in medicine.

Embryonic stem cell research (ESCR)

An ethically unacceptable form of SCR because it involves the killing of living human beings at the embryo stage.

Somatic cell

A cell that has reached its final differentiated state. Most cells in the human body are Somatic Cells

Germ cell

A sperm or egg. They usually contain a single set of chromosomes


A mature sperm or egg


The cell produced by the merger of two gametes, for example, a fertilized egg


The young of any organism in the early stage of development.


The young of any organism in the latter stage of development.


Neonate A newborn infant


A copy of another organism. A human clone is a live human being, initially at the Zygote stage and later at the Embryo stage.

Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT)

A technical process of creating a clone in a laboratory. It uses technology similar to In-Vitro Fertilization. This was the technology used to create Dolly, the sheep. The use of such a technology to create humans is ethically highly questionable at best. When this technology is used to create a human zygote and grow it to the embryo stage the result is a live human being by all scientific definitions.

Reproductive cloning

This deliberately misrepresenting phrase applies, not to the cloning process (see SCNT), but to the use of a cloned embryo to produce a live cloned baby

Therapeutic cloning

This deliberately misrepresenting phrase applies, not to the cloning process (see SCNT), but to the use of a cloned embryo to produce embryonic stem cells.


This term has been deliberately misrepresented to imply Therapeutic Cloning. A Clone exists when it is created, not when or how it is ultimately used.


A proper term for a healing treatment or agent. Its misuse in conjunction with Cloning above is intended to imply that the process will provide healing. It will certainly not heal the embryo being treated and the use of the term for a highly speculative, distant future treatment is highly unusual and grossly misleading.

Fertilization/ Conception

The successful merger of male and female gametes resulting in a zygote

In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)

A technical process of creating a zygote in a laboratory Petri dish using eggs and sperm. The Zygote is grown for a few days into an Embryo which can then be implanted in a woman’s uterus. The first human to be so conceived was Louise Brown, a Scottish girl, born in 1978.

Surplus embryos

The IVF process usually involves removing multiple (8 to 12) eggs from a woman, fertilizing most of them, and implanting a few (2 to 5) in a woman’s uterus. The remaining embryos are considered surplus and are frozen for future use. The Embryonic Stem Cell Research controversy concerns the use of these embryos.


The process of the embryo implanting itself or being implanted in a uterus.


The condition of having a developing human in the body


The science that deals with the origin and development of an organism through the embryo stage


The science that deals with the development of an organism through the later or fetal stage

PGD- Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis

A process of diagnosing an in vitro embryo for genetic defects. Non-defective embryos are selected for implantation. Defective embryos are discarded.


The deliberate killing of a pre-born human being.

Alternate terms for the word Abortion

Because both the term Abortion as well as the very concept of Abortion are controversial the supporters of abortion use alternate terms. These alternate terms fall into two areas;

One-screening terms, often technical, which blur the issue, and

Two-diverting concepts which remove the issue to more pleasant matters.

Termination of pregnancy




D&E- Dilation and evacuation

Screen term for partial birth abortion

Therapeutic abortion


Legal right to privacy


Reproductive rights


Roe v Wade

The January 22nd, 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the US

Doe v Bolton

The Supreme Court decision, also on January 22nd, 1973, that made abortion available if the mother’s health was endangered

Partial birth abortion

An abortion procedure that delivers a baby feet first from the mother’s womb except for its head, then kills the baby, before completing the delivery of the head.

Fetal research

Research conducted on developing humans beyond the embryo stage. This research is not currently being conducted in the US but laws in New Jersey make such research legal.


A body of tissue which attaches to the wall of the uterus establishing an interface between the mother’s blood stream and the baby’s blood stream

Fallopian tube

A narrow tube between an ovary and the uterus through which the female egg passes. Conception usually occurs in the fallopian tube near the ovary.

Umbilical cord

A cable-like structure which connects the preborn child to the placenta. It is a part of the baby’s blood stream carrying oxygen and nutrients,extracted from the mother’s blood stream to the baby and returning CO2 and other wastes back to the placenta and the mother’s blood stream.

Umbilical cord blood

Blood from the baby’s blood stream. A small amount of such blood remains in the umbilical cord after birth and that blood is relatively rich in early stage stem cells.

Amniotic fluid

The watery fluid within the uterus in which the preborn floats during pregnancy.

Alternative definitions for the beginning of human life

While the science of embryology has clearly and unanimously established (for almost 200 years) that all mammalian life begins at conception some continue to argue for other beginning points. Typically there is a semi-hidden purpose, e.g. abortion or ESCR, for arguing such a position.


The time after conception when the pre-born human could live outside of a mother’s womb. This point is currently about 20 weeks and decreasing.


The time after conception (about 5 days) when the separation of the embryo into two (or more) identical twins can no longer occur.

Primitive streak

The time after conception (about 7 days) when a spinal column and nerves begin to appear.


The time after conception (about 7 days) that the embryo implants itself in the mother’s uterus.


The time when the baby can become a citizen.

Up to one year after birth

A concept by Peter Singer and others that the creature? becomes self aware.


A term coined by Clifford Grobstein specifically to justify ESCR. It applies to an embryo before implantation

Human non-persons

A concept that while the pre-born are human beings they are not persons because they are missing some component of personhood, such as self awareness. Taken seriously this could be a catastrophically expansive and dangerous term.

Planned Parenthood

An organization founded by Margaret Sanger which promotes contraception and is a large and growing supplier of abortion services

Quality of life

A phrase covering a vague range of characteristics of personal living. The phrase is usually applied as a view of someone else’s life

Health of the mother

A key term in the Doe v Bolton decision which allows a doctor, including an abortionist, to accept a woman’s claim of adverse health affects, to justify an abortion

Persistent vegetative state

A term for a vaguely defined neurological condition from which a person is not expected to recover.

Consensus of scientists/ doctors/ etc.

A phrase for a situation where a number of people, not necessarily the majority, agree on a conclusion. The term is often misused to stifle debate. As applied to science the term “consensus” is almost an oxymoron since science depends on debate among conflicting views.

Death with dignity

A politically correct term for either Euthanasia or Assisted Suicide. It could be characterized as “Death for the inconvenient”.


An act or omission, which of itself or by intention causes a person’s death under the pretense of relieving suffering. It was formerly called “mercy killing”. Euthanasia could be characterized as “Murder with good intentions”.

Assisted suicide

Providing the physical means or assistance by which a person commits suicide. It could be characterized as “Murder with the victim’s permission”.