Condic's 'Pre-Zygote' Error in 'When Does Human Life Begin?'
"A small error in the beginning leads to a multitude of errors in the end" (Aristotle, De Caelo)

For our purposes here, note that Stage One of the Carnegie Stages includes the following as different phases of the development of the early human embryo during the process of fertilization: the penetrated oocyte, the ootid, and the zygote. That is, Stage One of the Carnegie Stages does not consist merely of the zygote alone. Nor does the zygote form at the beginning of the process of fertilization (when the sperm penetrates the oocyte) as the White Paper claims, but rather at the end of that process. Dr. Condic in fact scientifically contradicts herself. For example, in an effort to reject "syngamy" as the point in time when a new human being begins to exist, she counters that a human being begins to exist at the beginning of the process of fertilization, i.e., when the sperm penetrates or makes contact with the oocyte - yet she refers to that embryo as the "zygote". Which does she really mean? It is difficult to tell. A few examples of this inherent scientific contradiction are sufficient:

Modern science indicates that the beginning of life occurs sometime after the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm cell ... (p. 1)

The basic events of early development are both reasonably well characterized and entirely uncontested. Following the binding of sperm and egg to each other, the membranes of these two cells fuse, creating in this instant a single hybrid cell: the zygote or one-cell embryo. ... The contents of what was previously the sperm, including its nucleus, enter the cytoplasm of the newly formed zygote. Within minutes of membrane fusion, the zygote initiates changes in its ionic composition that will, over the next 30 minutes, result in chemical modifications of the zona pellucida, an a-cellular structure surrounding the zygote. ... Thus, the zygote acts immediately and specifically to antagonize the function of the gametes from which it is derived; while the "goal" of both sperm and egg is to find each other and to fuse, the first act of the zygote is immediately to prevent any further binding of sperm to the cell surface. (p. 3)

Based on this factual description of the events following sperm-egg binding, we can confidently conclude that a new cell, the zygote, comes into existence at the "moment" of sperm-egg fusion, an event that occurs in less than a second. (p. 5)

From the moment of sperm-egg fusion, a human zygote acts as a complete whole, with all the parts of the zygote interacting in an orchestrated fashion to generate the structures and relationships required for the zygote to continue developing towards its mature state. Everything the sperm and egg do prior to their fusion is uniquely ordered towards promoting the binding of these two cells. Everything the zygote does from the point of sperm-egg fusion onward is uniquely ordered to prevent further binding of sperm and to promote the preservation and development of the zygote itself. (p. 7)

Zygote: a cell formed by the union of two gametes; broadly, the developing individual produced from such a cell (p. 17)

B. Zygote formation: The zygote forms immediately upon sperm-egg fusion. (p. 17)

C. Early acts of the zygote: Within 30 minutes, meiosis II is complete, establishing the final diploid genome of the zygote. (p. 17)

In fact, the cover photograph of the White Paper "shows a light micrograph of a cryopreserved unicellular human zygote approaching syngamy".

Obviously, Dr. Condic can't have it both ways. Either a human being begins to exist at the beginning of the process of fertilization, as long documented by the Carnegie Stages, or a human being begins to exist when the zygote is formed at the end of the process of fertilization. If Dr. Condic means by the term "zygote" the embryo formed at the end of the process of fertilization, then the developing human embryo formed before the zygote (the penetrated oocyte and the ootid) would not be classified as a human being. This would "scientifically" open the door to its use in all manner of unethical projects, as noted above (See Irving 2006, 2008a, and 2008b).

Dr. Condic further equates the process of fertilization with "conception":

Based on universally accepted scientific criteria, a new cell, the human zygote, comes into existence at the moment of sperm-egg fusion, an event that occurs in less than a second. ... Thus, the scientific evidence supports the conclusion that a zygote is a human organism and that the life of a new human being commences at a scientifically well defined "moment of conception." (Summary, p. ix)

Based on a scientific description of fertilization, fusion of sperm and egg in the "moment of conception" generates a new human cell, the zygote, with composition and behavior distinct from that of either gamete. (p. 7)

Human development is an ongoing process that begins with the zygote ... A neutral examination of the factual evidence merely establishes the onset of a new human life at a scientifically well defined "moment of conception," a conclusion that unequivocally indicates that human embryos from the zygote stage forward are indeed living individuals of the human species-human beings. (p. 12)

As most people now realize, the term "conception" is not a scientific term and has been rejected by human embryologists (see O'Rahilly and Muller 1994: "The term conception, however, may refer either to fertilization or to implantation and hence (like gestation) is best avoided" (p. 19)). Further, if the term "conception" refers to the process of fertilization only, then Condic's statements would not apply to all human embryos reproduced asexually (without the use of sperm or oocyte). This would even include one of every two naturally occurring human monozygotic identical twins in vivo (reproduced asexually within the woman's body), as well as all human embryos asexually reproduced in vitro by means of cloning, genetic engineering, etc. And if the term "conception" applies only when the embryo is inside the mother's "womb", then it would not cover the embryo moving through the fallopian tube, and thus would allow for the use of abortifacients. Worse, the term "conception" is already defined legally in many state laws as meaning "implantation" (5-6 days post-fertilization) - which would thus legally justify the unethical use or destruction of all human embryos before implantation (see Irving 2008a).

In effect, Dr. Condic has perhaps unwittingly fallen into the same error as her colleagues, whom she admonishes for creating a "pre-zygote" when they argue for "syngamy" as the beginning of a human being. In criticizing "syngamy" as an "arbitrary definition for the beginning of life", Dr. Condic notes that:

Syngamy, the breakdown of nuclear membranes in preparation for cell division, is commonly held to be the point at which the zygote is formed and life begins. This definition does not deny that a new cell with unique composition and behavior is formed at sperm-egg fusion (a "pre-zygote," perhaps), but it fails to specify the nature of this cell. (p. 7)

And in response to Dr. Micheline Mathews-Roth's defense of "syngamy", Dr. Condic likewise interprets her as erroneously claiming that the cell that results from the fusion of sperm and egg is not a new individual but merely "a unique human cell in the process of becoming a new human, but not there yet" (p. 11).

If we are to take Condic her at her own words, she could be considered just as arbitrary in claiming that a human being begins with the formation of the zygote - which doesn't really take place until the end of the process of fertilization. Therefore, one must assume that she means that before the formation of the zygote there is only a "pre-zygote" present (i.e., referring to the penetrated oocyte and the ootid) - i.e., "a human being is not there yet".

Dr. Condic also argues that "the essential problem with the view that life begins at syngamy is the notion that a cell can change from one type (a "pre-zygote" that exists following sperm-egg fusion but prior to syngamy) into another type (the zygote that exists after syngamy) without any actual change in the material state or behavioral trajectory of the cell. (p. 9)"

Precisely; but then the same argument would apply to her as well. In reality, Dr. Condic's own "pre-zygote" does not change from one cell-type to another without any actual change in the material state or behavioral trajectory of the cell. The penetrated oocyte, the ootid, and the zygote are simply names given to the very same single-cell embryo as that embryo passes through the various phases of the process of fertilization. There is no "body/body" split or "mind/body" split to be had in this process!

Perhaps, had Dr. Condic referred to the Carnegie Stages as her "criteria" for determining when sexually reproduced human beings begin to exist, instead of relying only on "cell activity" criteria, she would have realized that to use the term "zygote" as marking the beginning of a human being would in effect create a "pre-zygote" for others to champion as "scientific evidence" to justify performing inherently unethical activities - and for lawmakers to appropriate for creating dangerous legal loopholes in laws and regulations.

Finally, Dr. Condic's insistence that the "zygote" (as she defines it) marks the beginning of a human being is a bit reminiscent of the "pre-embryo" saga that has haunted both Catholic and non-Catholic leaders alike for almost 40 years now. It is worth recounting here the strong rejection of the false "scientific" term "pre-embryo" in O'Rahilly and Muller's human embryology text book:

... The term 'pre-embryo' is not used here for the following reasons: (1) it is ill-defined because it is said to end with the appearance of the primitive streak or to include neurulation; (2) it is inaccurate because purely embryonic cells can already be distinguished after a few days, as can also the embryonic (not pre-embryonic!) disc; (3) it is unjustified because the accepted meaning of the word embryo includes all of the first 8 weeks; (4) it is equivocal because it may convey the erroneous idea that a new human organism is formed at only some considerable time after fertilization; and (5) it was introduced in 1986 'largely for public policy reasons' (Biggers). ... Just as postnatal age begins at birth, prenatal age begins at fertilization." (O'Rahilly and Muller 2001, p. 88)

Not to push the analogy too much, but Dr. Condic's definition of the human "zygote" could also be considered to be ill-defined, inaccurate, unjustified, equivocal, and would convey the erroneous idea that a new human organism is formed only at the end of fertilization with the formation of the zygote, rather than at the beginning with the formation of the penetrated oocyte. This would in effect deconstruct the Carnegie Stages. Fortunately, the international nomenclature committee has also rejected the false scientific term "pre-embryo". Most probably they would reject its new relative the "pre-zygote" as well Irving 2004a).

IV. Other Scientific Errors

The study of and literature research in the field of human embryology can be daunting at best. But accuracy, especially in scientific definitions, should be paramount, especially if they are marked for later use in legislation. To that end, it is perhaps prudent to note a few more minor scientific errors contained in this White Paper:

-- The scientific footnotes used refer mostly to research studies using non-human species - e.g., mouse, monkey, bovine, shark, phthon, turkey, and "mammalian". Without access to the proper experts in the field, it is common to assume, e.g., that scientific data achieved by the use of non-human animal embryos will automatically translate into accurate human embryonic data. However, nothing could be further from the truth, and this propensity to equate non-human with human embryonic development is often a signal that one has not really mastered human embryology per se itself. As O'Rahilly and Muller caution constantly in their own textbooks:

Experimental results obtained from animal embryos such as those of the chick and the mouse provide valuable insight into developmental processes. Great caution, however, needs to be exercised in applying the data of comparative and experimental embryology to the interpretation of human development. (O'Rahilly and Muller 2001, pp. 7, see also p. 10)

As an example, these same human embryologists note problems with the commonly used term "morula": "The term is not ideal, because it was used originally for amphibians, in which it gives rise to embryonic tissues only and not, as in mammals, to both embryonic and non-embryonic (e.g., chorion, amnion) structures" (O'Rahilly and Muller 2001, pp. 37-38). In fact, it was the frog embryology of embryologist Clifford Grobstein that was used by Jesuit theologian Richard McCormick as the "scientific" basis for their now-infamous human "pre-embryo" (Kischer and Irving 1997).

The point is that sometimes there is a correlation between non-human and human embryonic development - and sometimes there is not. In fact, the problem is so prevalent that O'Rahilly and Muller construct a chart of "Examples of Discarded and Replaced Terms" in their text book to aid students in identifying scientifically unsound "data", including that derived from non-human sources (see p. 12). Among those erroneous terms are included the terms "egg", "ovum", "morula", "tail", "yoke sac", and "pre-embryo".

-- The White Paper states that, demethylation is required "for normal patterns of gene expression to occur when zygotic transcription begins approximately ten hours later, and it is, therefore, also part of a developmental sequence that is initiated by sperm-egg fusion and unique to the zygote." (p. 7). In fact, such demethylation also occurs when germ line cells are formed in the early and late human blastocyst.

-- The term "genome" is mis-defined as "one haploid set of chromosomes with the genes they contain" (p. 14). This definition would include only those chromosomes found in the nucleus of a cell, and omits those chromosomes found in the cell's cytoplasm (e.g., those chromosomes that constitute mitochondrial DNA which are outside the nucleus). In fact, in human genetics, the human genome is defined as the total amount of DNA in a human cell - both nuclear and extranuclear. See, for example:

A genome consists of the entire set of chromosomes for any particular organism, (Lewin 2000, p. 4); In animal cells, DNA is found in both the nucleus and the mitochondria. (p. 10) ... The human genome is the term used to describe the total genetic information (DNA content) in human cells. It really comprises two genomes: a complex nuclear genome ..., and a simple mitochondrial genome. (Strachan and Read 1999, p. 139)

Nor does the "nuclear" membrane dissolve from around the paternal and maternal pronuclei chromosomes just before syngamy, but rather the "pronuclear" membranes. As the White Paper itself notes, the zygote has no nucleus (p. 5).

-- The term "cloning" is mis-defined only in terms of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), and mis-defines the product of SCNT:

Finally, cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), presents a challenge to the proposed definition of when life begins because cloning does not involve the union of sperm and egg. In SCNT, the nucleus of an egg is removed and a mature body (somatic) cell is then fused to the empty egg, generating a hybrid cell that contains the genetic information of the body cell.(p. 10) ... SCNT/Cloning: Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT); transplanting nuclei from body (i.e., somatic) cells to enucleated eggs (p. 16).

The fact is that there many kinds of human cloning techniques, e.g., both somatic cell and germ line cell nuclear transfer, pronuclei transfer, parthenogenesis, "twinning" (also referred to as blastomere separation, blastocyst splitting, embryo multiplication, etc.), a routine technique used in "infertility clinics"; and many currently used techniques of genetic engineering. Nor is the "enucleated egg" used in SCNT "empty", because its own mitochondrial DNA remains in the "egg" and becomes part of the resulting cloned embryo. Thus the cloned embryo does not "contain the genetic information of [just] the body cell", because it also contains the foreign mitochondrial DNA from the enucleated oocyte used, and it also lacks the mitochondrial DNA from the body (donor) cell. Such genetic differences in the stem cells derived from the cloned human embryo have long been acknowledged to cause serious immune rejection reactions when injected into patients as "therapies", even when the donor cell is derived from the same patient.

It is notable that the White Paper's mis-definitions of "genome" and "cloning" are quite similar to those found in the recent Weldon/Brownback "total human cloning bans" - which mis-definitions would have resulted in various legal loopholes so that literally no human cloning would be banned. (See Irving 2001).

-- The definition of "ovum (oocyte, egg)" could also cause confusion (p. 15). The terms "ovum" and "egg" are not used by human embryologists. As O'Rahilly and Muller have noted, the term "egg" is "best confined to the hen and to cuisine; use oocyte"; and the term "ovum" "does not exist in humans; use oocyte, ootid, or embryo" (O'Rahilly and Muller 2001, p. 12). The definition goes on to refer to "a mature egg that has undergone reduction, is ready for fertilization". However, it is not made clear that the oocyte that is "ready for fertilization" is diploid - not haploid - until and unless fertilization actually takes place. Such definitions have been taken to mean that the oocyte is always haploid, which is not correct.

There are several other minor scientific problems in this White Paper, but these are probably the more important ones to point to. It should be noted that Dr. Condic acknowledges taking these definitions "from the NIH-administered medical dictionary".

V. Conclusion

As noted in the "Introduction" of this article, a small error in the beginning leads to a multitude of errors in the end. As is hopefully apparent by now, to scientifically mis-define the human "zygote" as when a human being begins to exist would result in the human embryo preceding the zygote to be classified as a non-human being - a "pre-zygote". This in turn would preclude a sound determination of values and the correct formation of conscience. Deliberations and conclusions on the medical, moral, legal, political and theological levels would likewise be corrupted and invalid. And in particular, when erroneous scientific facts as those identified in this White Paper are incorporated into laws and regulations, they would justify the destruction of "pre-zygotes" for a multitude of purposes - especially if the term "zygote", and other scientific errors noted in this White Paper, are appropriated into laws and regulations. It is with these concerns in mind that the above comments have been presented. Hopefully, at least some of these errors will be reconsidered.


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