Case Series on Scientific Integrity, Truth, and Consequences: Erroneous Science in Bioethics; The "Delayed Personhood" Debates

Dianne N. Irving
Bulletin of the Catholic Association of Scientists and Engineers
"The Dialectic Anvil"
Copyrights June 1993 - February 1994
Edited for format and clarity July 30, 2004
Reproduced with Permission


Copyright June 1993

We Catholic scientists and engineers are a "diverse lot". Yet, despite our sometimes seemingly parochial and picky squabbles, there is at least one essential characteristic by which we should all be identified - that is, intellectual honesty and scientific integrity.

As Catholics we know the critical importance of the correct formation of conscience, and of moral decision making. Basic to this is having the correct information about reality - this is our very starting point. As scientists we are perhaps even more aware of the importance of starting with the correct information. We have (or should have) been trained to be intellectually honest and "follow our noses" - enthusiastically and ruthlessly rooting out any and all "artifacts" which would make our scientific discoveries invalid. If our experiments have been accurately and truthfully designed, they should produce accurate and truthful data. Even if some data is unexpected, we - as scientists - know better than to "fudge it". Negative experiments and "surprises" have always led to glorious new and exciting discoveries! And to "block" a scientifically accurate and intellectually honest attempt to correct wrong data is unconscionable - both as moral human beings and as practical scientists.

However, a virtual crisis is rapidly developing in the integrity of designing and performing experiments, the analyzing and reporting of data, and the acceptance for publication of scientifically inaccurate or misapplied data in articles submitted for publication in our journals. This includes the blocking of "corrective" articles by the peer review systems of those scientific journals. Many scientists still cling desperately to the old "freedom of inquiry" myth - as if they alone among all of the people and all of the professionals in the universe can do what ever they want - just because they are scientists. They ferociously resist government regulation, retorting that they will "police" themselves. This, of course, would solve all of these situations. But this, of course, is simply not being done.

Some rising alternatives to government regulation are "quality assurance" and "quality control" systems to try to assure the integrity of scientific data. Dr. Adil Shamoo has established a journal, "Accountability in Research", dedicated to developing and refining such techniques, while the Society of Quality Assurance exists with similar goals. There have been some attempts by both government and private scientific societies and associations to address these problems, but to date little of real substance has been accomplished in terms of results.

What is barely (or hypocritically) being addressed is the peer review system which "guards" the literature "in the field". Not only is scientifically incorrect, inaccurate and misapplied data being accepted by many peer review systems and published by their journals - attempts by scientific colleagues to correct that misinformation are rejected, and professional scorn and censure often follow. One prominent embryologist, who has taught embryology for over 30 years, had his "corrections" rejected by 18 different journals - even without peer review. One possible reason could have been that his corrections were not "politically correct" - i.e., would have seriously undermined he supposed embryological "data" currently supporting fetal experimentation, abortion, etc. (It is interesting that over 80% of the scientific fraud that has been verified originates from medical researchers in only one field - embryology!) In an attempt to present a paper on this situation at an upcoming "Peer Review Conference" (supposedly convened to address such fraud and injustices), he was again rejected - perhaps because some of the identified names were in charge of selecting and eliminating papers for this conference! Lately I have become aware of many other such accounts across the country.

It is perhaps worth noting my own experience. In analyzing 23 representative articles on determining "fetal personhood" for my dissertation, I found that in virtually all 23 articles the science that was being used as the major premise in their arguments was incorrect - as supported by virtually every embryological, genetic and other biological text and the most up to date research in the journals. This incorrect data is now already institutionalized in philosophical, theological and bioethics texts, computer bands and software around the world - and public policy in many of these related issues have been made on this data in myriad of local, state, federal and international commissions, panels and regulatory bodies. Incredibly, this data is still being supported by the "old boy network", and the have actually submitted it to the U.S. Supreme Court in a number of amici curiae briefs to influence the Court and convince it that they represent the "scientific consensus" on these issues. No scientists are standing up for the truth and rebutting these scientifically inaccurate claims. Why???

If intellectual honesty and scientific integrity are not restored now to the scientific enterprise, not only will all of this inaccurate literature be further institutionalized and the real truth about our world and ourselves as human beings in this world will be obfuscated, real harm will result to millions of innocent human beings because of the use to which such inaccurate data is put. Catholic scientists and engineers know the beauty of the Blessed Truth about ourselves and our world, and should consider organized ways to support each other in leading the way to restoring this Truth within each of our separate fields. For starters, I would greatly appreciate any embryologists, geneticists, molecular biologists, biochemists or physicians whoa re aware of these scientific inaccuracies in the literature on human embryonic or fetal development to contact me, as so many of us are deeply concerned about this basic assault on truth within our own professions, and want to do something about it. At least this is one thing we can do something about - together!


Copyright July 1993

As a follow-up on the inaccurate embryology which has been published for some time now, I would like to offer the following examples (among many others). If the following statements are incorrect, I would greatly appreciate any corrections, but complete with references (perhaps raw data would be even better). The issue being investigated here is: (1) empirically, when does the life of a human being normally begin, and (2) is there a scientifically demonstrable distinction between a human being and a human person? One thing at stake is ethical, social and legal benefits and protections; another is the numerous other issues in bioethics which depend on the answers to the question of "personhood" for their justification, e.g., organ transplantation, the use in experimental research of human embryos fertilized in vitro, the definitions of brain death and brain life, withdrawal of medical treatment, experimentation on the mentally ill, etc.

Some scientists are arguing that there is definitely a distinction between a human being and a human person, and using hard "scientific" data to support their claims. Although the philosophy used by them is often inaccurate as well, in this article the focus is only on the science used in these articles to ground their conclusions of "personhood". The issue is not only inaccurate or misapplied science, but the ethical and national and international public policy conclusions already based on that science. For example, if a human "person" is not present until full "sentience" (the ability to feel pain and pleasure), or full "rational attributes" are present, and if neither of these conditions are empirically present until several years after birth, then the following list of human beings are not "persons": fetuses, normal human infants, patients with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases, the mentally ill, drunks, alcoholics, the depressed, the comatose, etc. Consider the ethical and legal consequences. If the argument is that certain biological marker events are simply the earliest physiological preconditions for "sentience" or "rational attributes", they fail because the physiological precondition for these preconditions is the human zygote itself.

Life Begins:

Human cells (diploid) normally contain "46" chromosomes - the number which is specific for the human species. Before the sperm and the ovum can take part in fertilization, the number of chromosomes in each of these germ cells must be cut in half (haploid) in order to provide for the constancy of chromosome number from generation to generation. [Note, however, that in the female gamete (oocyte), the number of chromosomes are not cut in half until and unless it is fertilized by a sperm.] This reduction of the number of chromosomes takes place during gametogenesis with the process of meiosis. Neither of these male or female gametes, if placed singly in the womb (or in a petri dish), can become a human zygote (i.e., a human being). Neither can produce the characteristically human proteins, enzymes, etc. required to direct human embryonic or fetal development. The life of every human being [normally] begins at fertilization when the sperm and the oocyte combine and their chromosomes intermingle, resulting in a new, unique individual human zygote with "46" chromosomes. (At this point the "matter" is "appropriately organized".) The human zygote is genetically already a "he" or a "she" (determined by the sperm).

Human Being, Human Zygote:

After fertilization no new genetic information, species or natures are ever added to it - there is only growth and development of the human being in a physiological continuum which progresses until adult death. Thus fertilization marks a substantial change in natures - from germs cells containing "23" chromosomes each, to a human zygote containing "46" chromosomes. After fertilization there is no further change in nature, but only growth and development (or accidental change). The human zygote is an already existing human being with the potency to grow and develop itself further. It is not a "possible" or a "potential" human being that does not yet exist. The sperm and oocyte are, however, "possible" or "potential" human zygotes (or human beings) because they might later combine properly. The human zygote is not a "blob" or piece of the mother's tissues, because half of its chromosomal content is from the father. Finally, external circumstances - e.g., failure to implant, spontaneous abortion, etc., do not change the internal nature of the developing embryo or fetus - it is what it is no matter what such external circumstances are.

Self-Directed Development:

The human zygote contains virtually all of the genetic information for all of the processes during embryogenesis (including differentiation, implantation, etc). No genetic information is ever gained or lost - genes are simply turned on or off when needed (e.g., by methylation). This genetic information then "cascades" throughout human growth and development, e.g., coding for specific amino acids, which necessarily combine in specific sequences, which necessarily produce specific proteins folding in specific ways, which necessarily cause specific tissues and organs, etc. Immediately after fertilization specifically human proteins and enzymes are produced (not carrot or giraffe proteins and enzymes). The human zygote is the agent which itself directs its own development throughout embryogenesis. Molecular information from, e.g., the mother, is only selectively used by the embryo according to the requirements and genetic information in the embryo - and not determined ultimately by the mother; nor does the mother add any genetic information to the embryo or change its nature).

Not Human?

On the other hand, Bedate and Cefalo ( Carlos Bedate and Robert Cefalo, "The zygote: to be or not be a person", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 14:6, 1989, p. 641) claim that the human zygote is not a human being and therefore not a human person - it is not even "human" -- because it can lead to the formation of non-human entities, e.g., hydatidiform moles and teratomas. But these entities are derived from chromosomally abnormal "zygotes" which are not human beings to begin with.

Normal human zygotes are human by virtue of the number and quality of chromosomes present -- "46". Hydatidiform moles and teratomas have more than "46" chromosomes.

Bedate and Cefalo also claim that not all of the "information" needed for development is present in the zygote -- only enough information to proceed to the blastocyst stage. After that differentiation depends on molecular information from the mother. But all of the genetic information for all of the stages of embryogenesis are present in the single-cell zygote -- including that for differentiation.

Bedate and Cefalo fail to properly distinguish genetic from molecular information, as well as the ultimate cause of the directions (cascading). In fact it has been specifically demonstrated that molecular information from the mother does not cause differentiation, etc., but genetic information in the zygote does.


Copyright August 1993

Human Embryogenesis:

At fertilization the new human being, the single-cell zygote (stage 1), begins to divide (cleavage), but unlike other species, it divides unequally: first into 2 cells, then one of those cells divides giving 3 cells, then the other cell divides giving 4 cells; then each cell divides giving 8 cells, etc. These early embryonic cells are purposefully "totipotent" (which is also genetically determined); most but not all of their genetic information is still usable. However, the potential in each of these cells is not identical with each other, nor with the single-cell zygote, since they have already begun to specialize differently (differentiate).

By two to three days the whole embryo contains 12-16 cells and forms the solid morula (stage 2), and by 4-5 days the whole embryo is called the "free blastocyst" (stage 3), with about 6-32 cells. It has not implanted yet. The embryo begins to form fluid that fills cavities inside the free blastocyst. Within 5-7 days the whole embryo is called the "implanting blastocyst" (stage 4), and its cells are still considered to be "totipotent" (capable, on isolation, of forming a complete embryo). Two cell layers are now formed in the whole embryo: the trophoblast or outer cell layer, most but not all of which will go to form the placenta, etc.; and the embryoblast or inner cell layer, most but not all of which will go to form the later-stage embryo. The cells of the inner cell mass are initially still totipotent. Monozygotic twinning (embryo splitting) of this embryo can take place both before and after 14-days. In monozygotic twinning, 30% takes place before an inner cell mass is formed; 70% takes place by division of an inner cell mass. (Siamese twins and fetus-in-fetu twins are formed after 14-days.) The inner cell layer of the implanting blastocyst itself then divides into two - the epiblast, and the hypoblast layers - called the embryonic disc. Hence, at this point the embryo is also called a bilaminar embryo.

Building on a Design:

From 7-12 days, as the embryo implants into the endometrium of the uterus (stage 5), the cell layers in the embryo begin to differentiate more, forming, e.g., the yolk sac and the amniotic cavity.

The outer trophoblast layer of the implanting blastocyst will divide into two layers as well, forming the syncytiotrophoblast layer (which invades the endometrium), and the cytotrophoblast cells, some of which migrate into the syncytiotrophoblast, and other which will become part of the later fetus and adult. For example, the dorsal part of the yolk sac is incorporated into the later embryo as the primordium of the primitive gut. The allantois is represented in the adult human being as a fibrous cord, the median umbilical ligament, which extends from the apex of the urinary bladder to the umbilicus. The allantois is also involved with early blood formation. The primitive blood cells are derived mainly from the epithelial cells of blood vessels in the yolk sac and the allantois. By 11 days a primitive placental circulation is established. By 13-14 days the first chorionic villi are formed.

Upon Firm Foundations:

In the third week, the trilaminar embryonic disc is formed during the process called gastrulation (stage 5). This includes 3 layers derived from the embryoblast layer: the hypoblast, or the embryonic endoderm; the epiblast, or the embryonic ectoderm, and the newly formed intraembryonic mesoderm. At about 17 days (stage 6) the embryo forms the amnion, the yolk sac, the connecting stalk, the chorion, and the primitive streak (at about 16-17 days). The primitive streak begins to regress after 18 days, and is gone by 4 weeks.

More Essential Structures:

From 2 1/2 - 4 weeks (stages 7-10) the somites, the heart, the neural folds, and the major divisions of the brain are formed -- and organogenesis is well underway. By 18-22 days the heart begins to beat. By the end of 8 weeks of development, the embryo has gone through 23 developmental stages, and all of the essential external and internal structures have been formed and begun to develop, including the brain, heart, liver, somites, limbs, ears, nose and eyes. The entire "embryonic period" is from fertilization through 8 weeks. The "fetal period" is from the beginning of 9 weeks through birth.

Twisted Science:

However, frog embryologist Clifford Grobstein* and Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick claim that there is a human being present at fertilization, but it is not a human person before 14-days, because there is no "developmental individual" present yet - there is only a "genetic individual", a "pre-embryo" (i.e., it has no moral status). Why? Because "ensoulment" can only take place when there is a "developmentally single individual". Before 14-days, they argue, the zygote divides synchronously: 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. The cells of these entities are still totipotent - i.e., each one can form a new human being if separated from the whole embryo. Therefore, these cells "do not know how many individuals to become yet". They also claim that the 5-7 day blastocyst is not "developmentally single" yet because all of the cells from the trophoblast layer are discarded after birth as the placenta, etc., and all of the embryoblast layer cells become the "embryo proper". Furthermore, if two 8-cell embryos of different parentage are fused, a single adult is produced - and chimeras and mosaics can be formed. Also, up to 14-days twinning, produced by division of the inner cell mass of the blastocyst, can take place, they say -- but after the formation of the primitive streak at implantation, i.e., 14-days, twinning cannot take place. Therefore there is no "developmentally single individual" there before 14-days. Hence, "ensoulment" cannot take place until 14-days. Before that there is only a "pre-embryo", a "genetic individual" only.

However, the accurate science is that - unlike in other non-human embryogenesis - in human embryogenesis the early cell divisions of the embryo are a-synchronous, e.g., 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc. Totipotency is perfectly normal for these early cells - otherwise they could never be able to differentiate into all the cells, tissues and organs an adult human being needs. However, these early cells are not equally totipotent. Nor are these early human embryos "confused as to how many individuals they will be." First there is one individual, and then given external circumstances, another individual can form precisely because the cells of these early embryos are totipotent. But this hardly means that the first individual is no longer an individual - or that it was "confused".

Furthermore, not all of the trophoblast cells are discarded after birth, and not all of the embryoblast cells become the fetus and adult. Two 8-cell stage embryos do not normally fuse to form chimeras (although they can be forced artificially), and mosaics do not arise from two different embryos, only from one (caused by non-disjunction). Implantation takes place about 7-12 days, not 14-days - and the primitive streak forms after 14-days as part of the trilaminar embryo - then disappears. Most importantly, twinning can take place after 14-days - e.g., in Siamese and in fetus-in-fetu twins. Perhaps the pairing of a scientist who is not a human embryologist and a theologian who is not a scientist is not an ideal model for scientific accuracy in these "personhood" debates.

Grobstein and McCormick have tried to ground their arguments for "developmental individuality" on incorrect facts about human embryological development, totipotency, derivation of cell lines, chimera and mosaic formation, time of implantation and the formation of the primitive streak, and twinning. If the science used to ground "individuality" - and hence "personhood" - is incorrect, then their conclusions about "individuality - and hence "personhood" - are also incorrect. They seem to be selectively taking bits and pieces of relevant data and ignoring other relevant data of human embryological development. Perhaps they are trying to force this selected data to conform to their own philosophical/theological presuppositions (artifacts). The philosophy - the "personhood" issue -- will be addressed later in this series.

* Clifford Grobstein, "The Early Development of Human Embryos," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Vol. 10 1985, p. 213-236.

General References:

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