Communications Department

How a New York Times columnist altered a statement by an NRLC official

Jun 18, 2001 | Killing Embryos

June 18, 2001

[The account below is written by Douglas Johnson, legislative director at the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), on June 18, 2001.]

In my work as Legislative Director for the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), I engage in frequent discussions with journalists regarding right-to-life issues.  It is not uncommon to encounter journalists who display a predisposition to frame each issue along the lines suggested by those who disagree with our organization’s position.  It is quite UNcommon, however, for a journalist to actually attribute to me words that I have not uttered, and nearly unheard of for a journalist to attribute to me terminology that I have specifically repudiated during an interview.  Yet that is exactly what has occurred with Gail Collins, a columnist for The New York Times, and it appears that her editor is accepting her implausible defense.

I was interviewed by Ms. Collins on June 14 on the hot topic of embryonic stem-cell research.  The entire interview took perhaps seven or eight minutes.

At the very beginning of the interview, Ms. Collins referred to the controversy over stem-cell research as involving “fertilized eggs.”  As is my consistent practice, I immediately took a couple of minutes to advise Ms. Collins on why I believe the use of the term “fertilized egg” is medically inaccurate in this context.  I explained that a “fertilized egg” is a single cell, and that single cell does not have a cluster of stem cells within it.  I also explained that in my understanding most researchers kill the human embryo to obtain the stem cells at around one week of development, and always long past the brief one-cell stage.  I even argued that the use of the inaccurate term “fertilized egg” by proponents of embryo-destructive research (in poll questions, etc.) is “politically motivated.”

Ms. Collins heard me out on all that, and then we went on with the interview.  Throughout that interview, I used the terms “human embryo” and “embryo,” as I always do.  (By the way, I have given essentially this same refutation of “fertilized egg” to a number of other reporters in recent weeks.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when Ms. Collins’ June 15 column (which was unsympathetic to opposition to embryo-destructive research) contained the following “quotation” attributed to me: “‘We start with the principle that each of these eggs is an individual member of the human species,’ said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.”

I was astonished that Ms. Collins would place in my mouth the very terminology, in an even more indefensible variation, that I had gone to some length to correct.  Yet when I wrote to Ms. Collins to remind her of my detailed critique of the term “fertilized egg” and to request a correction, I received the following e-mailed response from Ms. Collins, quoted here in its entirety:  “I’m sorry that we’re going to have to agree to differ on your quote.  I do remember your discussion about fertilized eggs.  I also remember you making the statement I quoted, and my notes had you saying it.  I regret the disagreement.”

Thus, it appears that Ms. Collins’ position is that I took the trouble to give her a short lecture about how the term “fertilized egg” is inaccurate and politically motivated, but that I then immediately myself referred to human embryos as “eggs” (which is a term that I would never use to refer to human beings).  She further maintains that she unerringly recorded this astonishing utterance, but without commenting on it at the time.  This account is implausible on its face, and it is false.   Moreover, anybody who has paid any attention knows that we don’t talk that way.

If Ms. Collins actually wrote down “eggs,” then it was because she was already using that term in her own thinking, so when I said “embryos,” she mistakenly wrote “eggs” or some shorthand that she later interpreted as “eggs.”  (This interpretation is supported by the absence of the usual modifier “fertilized” in the bogus quotation.)  Even if that occurred, when she was actually writing the column she should have remembered my little lecture and realized her error before it reached print.   It is surely disappointing that Ms. Collins now persists in attributing to me the tendentious terminology that she acknowledges I took pains to refute.

It should hardly be necessary to add that the immediate issue addressed here is NOT which terms — human embryo, embryo, fertilized egg, or egg — are accurate when used to describe the individual member of the species homo sapiens who is killed in the act of removing stem cells.  If Ms. Collins or others, for polemical purposes or otherwise, wish to employ terminology that I consider inaccurate and politically motivated, it’s a free country.  But they are not free to put their words in my mouth.

Douglas Johnson
Legislative Director
National Right to Life Committee
Washington, D.C.
(202) 626-8820

Categories: Killing Embryos