The Case of the Preembryo: The Reinvention of Human Development, Part One and Part Two

Author: C. W. Kischer


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*Editor's note: As recounted both in the last issue of #NRL News# and the story that begins on page 10 of this issue, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has constituted a Human Embryo Research Panel. Judging by its first meeting, February 2-3, the panel is ready to give approval to virtually any proposal, including the creation of embryos for experimentation, cloning, cloning for "spare parts," and the like.

One key justification for experimentation on young human beings is that prior to 14 days they are supposedly a qualitatively different entity, more like mere tissue than a "real" human being. Thus the application of the misnomer "preembryo." In this article and one next issue, Dr. Clayton Ward Kischer shows conclusively that there is no biological justification to make such an arbitrary distinction. *

Human embryology is the study of development from fertilization to birth. However, because certain types of embryonic cells and tissues persist in adults, the study necessarily includes all stages of life and even aspects of death.

One of the renowned deans of human embryology was Bradley Patten, who authored several textbooks on the subject. He stated that the term *embryo* applies to all stages after the *zygote* (the fusion of the sperm with the ovum), up until approximately nine weeks post fertilization. The developing human then would be termed a *fetus*, which would apply to all subsequent development until birth. Patten stated the case clearly by saying, "the delineation of stages is purely arbitrary, constitute a continuous process and one phase merges into another without any real point of demarcation."

Indeed, one must keep in mind two points. First, there is no point of significance in development that outweighs any other. The reason is that every point in time of development derives its significance from the previous point in time.

Second, from the first contact of the plasma membrane of the sperm with the plasma membrane of the ovum #all# of development from that moment is a *fait accompli*. That is to say, under what we have come to understand as normal circumstances, all of development has been committed. All of development from that initial contact forward is exactly what Patten declared years ago: a *continuum*.

Has his opinion been overtaken by time and further discoveries? Not at all. As we shall see momentarily, with one exception (which is not really an exception), none of today's leading textbooks on human embryology disagree with Patten's statement.

However, these straightforward facts of human development are now under an unrelenting and overwhelming assault via the invention of the term *preembryo*. This designation is meant to declare that up to a certain stage the "individual" is not yet present. Therefore, during this so-called stage (usually designated as the first 14 days of life) we are to accept that embryos may be experimented upon and/or disposed of with impunity.

This artificial and biologically unjustifiable designation was promoted and given widespread publicity in 1986 by the Ethics Committee of the American Fertility Society (AFS). Significantly, that committee contained not a single human embryologist. The objective would seem to have been to justify (at a minimum) early abortions, destructive embryo experimentation, and *in vitro* fertilization (*IVF*) proposals.

The ethics committee defined a *preembryo* as a "product of gametic union from fertilization to the appearance of the embryonic axis. The preembryonic stage is considered to last until 14 days after fertilization. This definition is not intended to imply a moral evaluation of the preembryo."

Interestingly, while the committee may very well not have intended its term *preembryo* to justify a reevaluation of moral imperatives relative to abortion, destructive embryo experimentation, *in vitro* fertilization, and other attendant socio-legal issues, that is exactly what has happened. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is currently sponsoring deliberations on the moral and ethical considerations of human embryo research which have revived the notion that there is a qualitative difference between the human embryo prior to 14 days of development and the same developing human after 14 days.

The rationale for the description *preembryo* was contained in explanations found in a statement the AFS ethics committee published in the proceedings of its conference in 1986.

(inset) The populations of inner and outer cells of the early embryo become increasingly different, indeed, not only in position and shape but in synthetic activities as well. The change is primarily in the outer population, which is altering rapidly as the blastocyst interacts when it implants into the uterine wall .... Thus, the first cellular differentiation of the new generation relates to physiologic interaction with the mother rather than to establishment of the embryo itself. It is for this reason that it is appropriate to refer to the developing entity up to this point as a preembryo rather than an embryo. ** (end inset)

** *The committee uses the word "primarily" rather than "solely." But how can anything other than solely support their contention?*

The ethics committee is suggesting that the cells in the very early stages of differentiation are a response to physiological interaction with the mother, not in "assembling" the embryo.

The committee gave a different twist to this idea in another section:


First, . . . early events in the mammalian [sic] development, very likely including the human [sic], involve formation of extraembryonic, rather than embryonic structures and functions. This means that the zygote could reach an early blastocyst stage and should be regarded as preembryonic rather than embryonic. Such terminology reserves the term "embryo" for the rudiment of the whole being that first appears in the second week after fertilization. (end inset)

But the evidence of human embryology simply does not back these statements up. To understand why, we need to discuss briefly how the human zygote grows.

Initially one cell, the zygote begins to divide (a process known as cleavage), first into two cells, then four, eight, sixteen, and so forth. The embryo is subsequently described as a *blastocyst*, after an outer rim of cells is formed and the inner cells congregate at one end, while a cavity forms to occupy most of the inner space. This takes approximately five to six days after fertilization to accomplish.

The committee makes the assumption that the inner cells, now referred to as the inner cell mass, are essentially inactive whereas the cells on the outer layer are interacting with the tissue of the uterus. In fact, there is some evidence that prior to the blastocyst stage, specific embryonic proteins are being synthesized.

However, even if this were not true, the assertions made by the AFS ethics committee are specious and arbitrary for the simple reason that #any# subsequent stage in development must have originated from fertilization of the ovum. Therefore, the significance of establishing an outer layer of cells interacting with the uterine tissue and an inner cell mass that later will comprise the body and parts of the embryo proper ** lie not in the claim that one interacts directly with the mother and one does not, but that they act in a #complementary# way in the formation of one part of the *continuum* of development.

(footnote) ** *Recently Boyce Rensberger, staff writer for* The Washington Post, *referred to the inner cell mass as the* "true embryo." *That terminology cannot be found in any legitimate human embryology text, and I do not know of any reputable human embryologist who would use that term. Rensberger placed it in a diagram with the source cited as Keith L. Moore: The Deueloping Human. Moore has never used the term* #true embryo#. (end footnote)

The ethics committee of the AFS also offered another explanation for why it considered the developing human being in its first 14 days to be qualitatively different. That has to do with the development of the so-called "primitive streak."

(inset) The first rudiment of the embryo itself becomes the site of formation of the embryonic axis simultaneous with the appearance of the third cell layer between the original two. The visual indication of this lies in the primitive streak, in a linear region where cells from the upper layer of the embryonic disc migrate into the new middle layer. With the appearance of the streak, as far as is now known, the embryonic disc is committed to forming a single being; beyond this point, twinning is not believed to occur, either naturally or experimentally.

Six years later the Kennedy Institute of Ethics journal published as the lead article in its very first issue a paper entitled: "Who or What is the Preembryo?" Its author was the Reverend Richard McCormick, S.J., who in fact was a member of the 1986 AFS ethics committee.

It was in this article that a more detailed justification of the use of the term *preembryo* was applied using monozygotic twinning (identical twins) as the example. The Reverend McCormick called for a reconsideration of the time for ensoulment based on the presumed validity of the term *preembryo*, following the argument of Dr. Clifford Grobstein (a developmental not a human embryologist) that at that stage the unborn lacks *developmental individuality*.

Thus, it may be said that "developmental individuality" has both a religious (ensoulment) and a secular expression. But in either case, the question is: Is true individuation attained when the embryo has reached the stage where the inner cell mass no longer can divide to produce twins? The truth is, at this time, there is #no# possible way to answer the question.

The explanation/justification offered by the AFS ethics committee exhibits grave, flaws.

First, it could apply only to a tiny, tiny fraction of live births. Second, some of those who use this concept as a justification to diminish the human quality of the early embryo simply do not understand human development, or misrepresent it (as we shall see at length in Part Two).

To offer just one example, proponents often claim that developmental "singleness" cannot be established until after the eight-cell stage. In fact, 30% of all identical twins are accounted for by division at the two-to-eight-cell stage.

Third, the ethics committee ignored the likelihood that there may be certain "determinants" (of an unspecified nature) which may come into play before, at, or about the 14th day which preclude further duplications - - that is, twins or multiple identical individuals. So whatever it is that prevents duplication may be elaborated early after fertilization but may be masked or inhibited until the mask or inhibitor is removed. This could happen at the two, four, eight-cell stage, or at the 14-day time. The truth is, no determinants (or inhibitors of such determinants) have been identified to date.

Do the leading human embryologists of today accept the term *preembryo*? They do not.

Dr. Ronan O'Rahilly, author of an extensive 1992 textbook on Human Embryology and Teratology, rejects it. Dr. William Larsen, professor of anatomy and cell biology, University of Cincinnati School of Medicine, author of a very extensive 1993 textbook on human embryology, rejects it. Dr. Bruce Carlson, professor and chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology, University of Michigan School of Medicine, and author of an extensive 1994 textbook on human embryology, rejects it. I have been teaching human embryology to medical students, upper division, and graduate students for nearly 30 years, and I reject it.

Dr. Keith Moore, professor of anatomy, University of Toronto School of Medicine, Toronto, Canada, and author of several editions (many widely used) of textbooks on human embryology, and author of a 1993 fifth edition of his textbook on human development, is the first and only human embryologist, so far, to use the term *preembryo* in the text. However, when I discovered the use of that term in his new edition, I wrote Dr. Moore a letter of protest citing my objections and the reasons why.

He replied with the following: "Obviously the inclusion of the concept *preembryo* in the new edition of our textbook was inappropriate." He offered to remove the term in the next printing of his fifth edition text. He was unwilling to defend and support the use of that term.

The term preembryo should be rejected not only because it cannot be supported by scientific fact, but because it continues to be used for political purposes to justify (at a minimum) early abortions, harmful embryo experimentation, and *IVF* procedures.

Let us suppose that the term *preembryo* may eventually be accepted by human embryologists. If that were to ever happen, it must be declared and in fact emphasized that its use (or any other term which might define a given point of development) is appropriate *only* in the taxonomic sense to the human embryologist, and useful and important to obstetricians as clinical markers.

But this carries with it, as the ethics committee of the American Fertility Society declared in their #original# statement, *no significance whatsoeuer with respect to ethical and moral considerations for any socio-legal issue which may involve intervention in a pregnancy*.


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*Editor's note: As outlined extensively in Part One, the creation of the misnomer "preembryo" is a classic example of bogus biology in service of a political agenda, in this instance, the promotion of abortion and destructive experimentation performed on unborn humans. Preembryos - - a designation given to the developing human up until approximately the 14th day- - are said to be qualitatively different from later embryos, which supposedly frees up researchers to experiment on them with impunity.

But while such a label is scientifically indefensible, as we shall see in greater detail in Part Two, it serves two extraordinarily useful purposes to those on the National Institutes of Health (NIN) Human Embryo Research Panel.

On the one hand, proponents of destructive embryo experimentation can claim that what they are manipulating is more akin to mere "tissue" than a "real" human. On the other hand, because several panel members candidly admit the choice of 14 days is entirely arbitrary, they can later recommend that destructive experimentation be extended on the unborn past - - probably well past - that two-week cutoff time.

(For more information on the panel, see story this issue, page 10; #NRL News#, 2/14/94, pp. 14-16; and #NRL News#, 3/16/94, pp. 2, 10, and 15.)*

What I call "bogus biology" is not confined to the current misuse of the term *preembryo*. There have always been scientific "facts" which later proved to be completely, even amusingly, inaccurate.

Sometimes the explanation is simply that the "science" of the day was primitive. Take the topic of human fertilization, for example. During the time of Aristotle, there were many bizarre speculations, although one - - that the mixing of semen with blood generates the new individual - was not too far off the mark.

Later, ironically, a major breakthrough - - the invention of Leeuwenhoek's microscope in the 17th century - - gave rise to the term *homunculus*, the miniature human tucked supposedly within the head of the sperm. This is what the early microscopists thought they saw!

Another less amusing example of misrepresented science occurred in 1866. Ernst Haeckel proposed what was to be called the "biogenetic law"- *Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny*. In simple terms, Haeckel maintained that during development, the human embryo passes through all the stages of its ancestors' evolutionary development. In other words, the embryo would relive our total evolutionary inheritance.

Amazingly, this long-since discredited myth of recapitulation could still creep into respectable publications as late as 1988. In a biology textbook written by Wessels and Hopson, they mistakenly claim that gills and a tail occur in human embryoes. In fact Haeckel himself knew 38 years #before# he "discovered" his biogenetic law, that Karl von Baer had correctly pointed out that embryonic stages of the higher forms are similar to #embryonic# (not adult) stages of lesser forms. For example, a gill and a tail are adult structures in lesser vertebrates and #never# appear in the human embryo. #Assault Grows Worse#

However, we may be witnessing today the greatest assault ever made upon human embryology. Clifford Grobstein is an emeritus professor of biological science and public policy from the University of California, San Diego. He is a developmental biologist, not a #human# embryologist. In my judgment, he has been perhaps the single greatest source of #revisionism# in human embryology.

Even though his specialties are mice and chicks, for the past 10 years or more he has written prolifically about *human* development. Within that context he has designed six arbitrary "stages of individuality" which he has promoted in several sources, one of them being a 1988 book entitled *Science and the Unborn*.

He also served on the ethics committee of the American Fertility Society in 1986 and 1990, which produced and revised a number of statements concerning human development and its relationship to such issues as human embryo research, *in vitro* fertilization (*IVF*), and fetal tissue research, as well as abortion. Grobstein's theories were also absolutely instrumental in promoting the *preembryo* misnomer.

#Preembryo and the AFS#

It is of considerable significance that the ethics committee of the American Fertility Society (AFS) in 1986 promoted, if not invented, the term *preembryo*. Although the AFS stated that the term should have no relationship to an ethical and moral consideration, just the opposite has occurred.

It is especially intriguing that the term *preembryo* was introduced specifically for the *human embryo*. Although Grobstein worked on chicks and mice, he has applied the term *preembryo* #only# to humans, never to the embryos of lesser vertebrates.

#Further, not a single scientific reference was given in support of the introduction of this term *preembryo*#. The justification given came from Grobstein's arbitrary stage of *developmental individuality*. Even if Grobstein's stages of individuality should at some future time obtain scientific support (which I am sure will not be the case), the significance is not that these sequential stages are different one from another, but that one *follows* the other.

These six so-called "stages" of individuality, in order, include genetic, developmental, functional, psychic, neural, and social. *Developmental individuality* was discussed in detail last issue in Part One. To again illustrate the fallacy of these "stages," let us examine another stage: *functional individuality*.

Grobstein indicates that "functional individuality" occurs at the first heartbeat. This normally is recorded at or about 21 days postfertilization.

However, this is, in fact, merely the time at which the first heartbeat can be *detected*. The detection of this heartbeat, of course, is dependent upon enough sarcomeres (contractile units) of cardiac tissue, acting together in a consortium to produce a magnitude which can be recorded by a detection instrument.

(But suppose the instrumentation could be refined so as to detect a far weaker beat? Would his arbitrary definition continually change, then, to reflect the improvement of the instrument?)

His definition conveniently leaves out important events prior to detection. These include synthesizing the correct type of filaments in the correct disposition and in the correct association of this first contraction and, therefore making possible that first detectable beat. What is the value of all this preparation? Is it of no significance in terms of human development?

The answer is, of course, that *everything* prior to the first beat is significant (equally so) and should not, and cannot be discounted. One can logically follow this back to that point of fertilization, the initial contact between the cell membrane of the sperm and the cell membrane of the ovum.

But there is much more to Grobstein's agenda. He contributed a chapter to a 1993 book entitled: *Ethical Issues in Research*, edited by Darwin Cheney. The title of his essay was "The Status and Uses of Early Human Developmental Stages." As we discuss it, note how the 14-day cutoff for *preembryo* vanishes.

In addition to repeating his previously published assertion concerning the claim for *preembryo* status based on the onset of individuation (see Part One), he now makes additional outrageous claims. For example, Grobstein claims the *embryonic* period ends and the *fetal* period begins at "the onset of bodily movement at 6 to 7 weeks, post-fertilization."

This is a clear reinvention of human development, which traditionally states that the change from embryo to fetus occurs at approximately nine weeks post-fertilization. The traditional definition is solidly based on 1) rapid differentiation of the face, 2) establishment of most, if not all of the major organs, and 3) the beginning differentiation of the genetic sex.

Besides, the term embryo and fetus are useful only in the taxonomic sense, and are important only to the embryologist because all stages overlap over the whole span. Within the context of *stages*, movement has nothing to do with the transition from embryo to fetus.

Why is Grobstein reinventing human embryology?

He speaks of guidelines to govern the treatment of *preembryos*, then says, "These principles [actually guidelines] are intended to apply to pre-embryos as *pre-persons*." Next, he states, "Thus, the first point made earlier with respect to the status of pre-embryos is *equally valid for embryos*."

What is the significance? That Grobstein, for all practical purposes, has now advanced the end point for the *preembryo* stage (previously designated as 14 days post-fertilization) to #his# end point for the embryonic stages - - seven weeks, postfertilization!

Therefore, if the Human Embryo Research Panel for NIH follows Grobstein's lead, it will conclude that it's okay to experiment on any embryo up to seven week postfertilization.

One final note concerning Grobstein's agenda. His argument in *Ethical Issues in Research* was powered by his determination to loosen the safeguards (such as they were) established by Congress to protect the subjects of human experimentation. To open the door to such experimentation requires what Grobstein obliquely describes as "attach[ing] value to scientific knowledge" which, he writes, "often means to detach value from what was previously thought to be reliable knowledge."

As an example of this attachment/detachment process, Grobstein cites the need to forgo the idea that abortion is the moral equivalent of murder and in its place to agree that "a person emerges gradually in complicated ways from a single cell." This, we are lectured, is a part of "the scientific and technological literacy, which we are all urged to share more widely with the general community."

It is, of course, nothing of the sort. Ironically Grobstein insists that in his essay he is about the business of critiquing the "misrepresentation of data." But as we have shown, in creating an imaginary entity known as a *preembryo*, he does so precisely by misrepresenting data and drawing moral - - not scientific - - conclusions his data either do not support or have nothing to say about.

He also plays tricks with words and phrases. At one point he uses the phrase, "family of value issues," while speaking of the interaction of science and society.

The brain works in mysterious ways. Many readers will remember this convoluted phrase as "family values," thus coming away with a more positive attitude toward his revisionary ideas.

Soon this madness must end. Bogus biology cannot be corrected as long as those who are in responsible positions of authority and power deliberately choose to ignore the facts. The political proclivities of too many scientists are showing.

Some reasonable effort to entertain ethical and moral considerations concerning human embryo research may be exercised at this time by the Human Embryo Research Panel, although the first two meetings have not been promising. (See story, page 10.) Let us hope that reason and sanity prevail and that they receive willingly the true information concerning human development.

Once this has been presented and accepted, reasonable discourse concerning the ethics and moral imperatives involving not just *in vitro* fertilization and human embryo research, but abortion and all the attendant socio-legal issues, may be responsibly discussed.

*Ward Kischer received his Ph.D. in 1962 from Iowa State University majoring in embryology. After an NIH Fellowship in Biochemistry at M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston, Texas, he took a position in anatomy at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, then at the University of Arizona, College of Medicine in Tucson. He has taught human embryology to medical students, seniors, and graduate students since 1963*.

First appeared in the National Right to Life News. Copied with permission.

This article appeared in the March 16, 1994 issue.

National Right to Life News is the official publication of the National Right to Life Committee, Inc. Subscription information, including bulk rates for schools and libraries may be obtained from NRL News, Suite 500, 419 - 7th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004. Phone: (202)626-8800.