"Another Tragic Casualty of Fr. Richard McCormick's 'Pre-embryo' Myth: Meet Missouri's Mr. Neaves"

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright June 28, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

The damage caused by the McCormick/Grobstein "pre-embryo" myth over the last 40 years has been devastating and incalculable to the Catholic Church - not to mention science.1 But few people fully understand the similar damage done to other churches and denominations as well.

Take the case of William B. Neaves, President and CEO of Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri. No one has been more influential in stopping efforts to ban human cloning in the State of Missouri than Mr. Neaves - after all, the Stowers Institute has a lot to gain from stopping that cloning ban. Regardless of his continual use of basic and textbook wrong science,2 and glib efforts to play the "religious faith card", the media continues to parade his absurd "science" and "beliefs" about the urgent need to "cure diseases" by cloning living human embryos in order to kill them for "therapies". His latest contribution to the "debate" is entitled, "That isn't a tiny human in lab dish", [Opinions, Springfield News Leader (Missouri), June 26, 2005, at: http://www.springfieldnews-leader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050626/OPINIONS/50625002/1006].

In this article Mr. Neaves claims that he is a Southern Baptist from rural West Texas and a born-again Christian. His wife is an ordained Methodist minister, a certified hospital chaplain, and "a trained bioethicist".3 His presumed point is that different people have different "beliefs" about the early human embryo, and that one group's "beliefs" should not stop this "important" research. Since he can't appeal to the objective scientific facts about whether these "blobs" are really human beings (because those facts would clearly prove him wrong), he instead appeals to other "beliefs" which would support his position. Enter Fr. Richard McCormick.

Not for the first time4 does Mr. Neaves publicly appeal in this article to Catholic Jesuit theologian Richard McCormick for "credibility":

"Twenty years ago, she and I were invited by the journal of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University to write a definitive paper on the moral dimensions of in vitro fertilization. We came then to the same conclusions reached later by distinguished Catholic theologians such as Father Norman Ford and Father Richard McCormick.

"We believe an individual human being begins life after successful implantation of a fertilization blastocyst in the uterus. Until then, the fertilization blastocyst has the potential to become an individual human being and deserves reverence and respect as such. But we cannot reconcile the belief that fertilization blastocysts are already individual human beings with the God-ordained fact that, during normal, natural human reproduction, the majority of them die before implanting in the uterus.

"For more than two decades, we have read, thought, and prayed about the earliest steps in the beginning of a new human life, and we are secure in our religious belief that the fertilization blastocyst is not a person. We agree with Father Richard McCormick, a theologian widely acknowledged as the most distinguished Catholic moral philosopher of the 20th century. Father McCormick concluded, 'In view of the conviction that the preembryo is not yet a person and that its statistical potential for becoming such is small, it is not clear that nontherapeutic experiments can be excluded in principle.' Some people believe the fertilization blastocyst is already a person. We respect their belief."

First, McCormick and Grobstein never said that the "pre-embryo" is not a human being. They agreed that it is a human being immediately at fertilization5 - and for that reason alone Neaves' argument flops. What McCormick and Grobstein did say is that the "pre-embryo" is just a "genetic individual", not yet a "developmental individual" or "person" (which supposedly begins after 14-days). Aside from all the false science incorporated in McCormick and Grobstein's claim, the real "pre-embryo" argument is about "individuality", not about whether or not the "pre-embryo" is a human being.

Second, it is difficult to "believe" that after two decades of such serious reading, thinking, and praying "about the earliest steps in the beginning of a new human life", Neaves and his wife never understood the "pre-embryo" argument correctly, never read a genuine human embryology textbook, or ever found out that the "pre-embryo" and its "individuality" had both been formally rejected by the international nomenclature committee on human embryology. As succinctly put by internationally known and respected human embryologist Ronan O'Rahilly (one of the founders of The Carnegie Stages of Early Human Development)6:

"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." [Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Muller, Human Embryology & Teratology (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001), p. 88)

Let us be clear. We all profoundly agree how critical it is to respect others' faiths. But in such deceptive appeals to "faith-based science" aren't these faiths really being taken advantage of instead - "largely for public policy reasons"? And should such "faith-based science" really ground public policies as Mr. Neaves suggests?

Remember Galileo?


1  The influence of the McCormick/Grobstein term "pre-embryo" was (and still is) widespread even among Catholic scholars. In addition to the works of McCormick and Grobstein, see acceptance of the term "pre-embryo" also in: Andre E. Hellegers, "Fetal development," in Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembatty (eds.), Biomedical Ethics, (New York: Macmillan, 1981); Hellegers, "Fetal development", Theological Studies (1970), 31:3-9; Charles E. Curran, "Abortion: Contemporary debate in philosophical and religious ethics", in W. T. Reich (ed.), Encyclopedia of Bioethics 1 (London: The Free Press, 1978), pp. 17-26; Kevin Wildes, "Book Review: Human Life: Its Beginning and Development" (L'Harmattan, Paris: International Federation of Catholic Universities, 1988); Carlos Bedate and Robert Cefalo, "The zygote: To be or not be a person", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (1989), 14:6:641; Robert C. Cefalo, "Book Review: Embryo Experimentation, Peter Singer et al (eds.); 'Eggs, embryos and ethics'", Hastings Center Report (1991), 21:5:41; Mario Moussa and Thomas A. Shannon, "The search for the new pineal gland: Brain life and personhood", The Hastings Center Report (1992), 22:3:30-37; Carol Tauer, The Moral Status of the Prenatal Human (Doctoral Dissertation in Philosophy; Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 1981) (Sister Tauer's dissertation mentor was Richard McCormick; she later went on to become the ethics co-chair of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel 1994); C. Tauer, "The tradition of probabilism and the moral status of the early embryo", in Patricia B. Jung and Thomas A. Shannon, Abortion and Catholicism (New York: Crossroad, 1988), pp. 54-84; Lisa S. Cahill, "Abortion, autonomy, and community", in Jung and Shannon, Abortion and Catholicism (1988), pp. 85-98; Joseph F. Donceel, "A liberal Catholic's view", in Jung and Shannon, Abortion and Catholicism (1988), pp. 48-53; H. Tristram Engelhardt, The Foundations of Bioethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 111; William A. Wallace, "Nature and human nature as the norm in medical ethics", in Edmund D. Pellegrino, John P. Langan and John Collins Harvey (eds.), Catholic Perspectives on Medical Morals (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishing, 1989), pp. 23-53; Norman Ford, When Did I Begin? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 298; Antoine Suarez, "Hydatidiform moles and teratomas confirm the human identity of the preimplantation embryo", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (1990), 15:627-635; Thomas J. Bole, III, "Metaphysical accounts of the zygote as a person and the veto power of facts", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (1989), 14:647-653; Bole, "Zygotes, souls, substances, and persons", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (1990), 15:637-652.

See also: See Richard McCormick's testimony in The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research; Report and Recommendations; Research on the Fetus; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1975, pp. 34-35; McCormick, How Brave a New World? (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press), p. 76; McCormick, "Proxy consent in the experimentation situation", Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (1974), 18:2-20; Paul Ramsey's testimony in The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research; Report and Recommendations; Research on the Fetus; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1975, pp. 35-36.

The use of the term "pre-embryo" has been quite widespread for decades -- nationally and internationally. In addition to the Catholic scholars who accepted the use of the term "pre-embryo" as noted above, a partial list of secular bioethics writers who also accepted the use of the term in these debates includes: Paul Ramsey, "Reference points in deciding about abortion" in J.T. Noonan (ed.), The Morality of Abortion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 60-100, esp. p. 75; John Robertson, "Extracorporeal embryos and the abortion debate", Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy (1986), 2;53;53-70; Robertson, "Symbolic issues in embryo research", The Hastings Center Report (1995, Jan./Feb.), 37-38; Robertson, "The case of the switched embryos", The Hastings Center Report (1995), 25:6:13-24; Howard W. Jones, "And just what is a preembryo?", Fertility and Sterility 52:189-91; Jones and C. Schroder, "The process of human fertilization: Implications for moral status", Fertility and Sterility (August 1987), 48:2:192; Clifford Grobstein, "The early development of human embryos", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (1985), 10:213-236; also, Science and the Unborn (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 61; Michael Tooley, "Abortion and infanticide", in The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion, M. Cohen et al (eds.) (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 59 and 64; Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse, "The ethics of embryo research", Law, Medicine and Health Care (1987),14:13-14; Kuhse and Singer, "For sometimes letting - and helping - die", Law, Medicine and Health Care (1986), 3:40:149-153; Kuhse and Singer, Should The Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants (Oxford University Press, 1985), p.138; Singer, "Taking life: Abortion", in Practical Ethics (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 122-123; Peter Singer, Helga Kuhse, Stephen Buckle, Karen Dawson, Pascal Kasimba (eds.), Embryo Experimentation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); R.M. Hare, "When does potentiality count? A comment on Lockwood," Bioethics (1988), 2:3:214; Michael Lockwood, "When does life begin?", in Michael Lockwood (ed.), Moral Dilemma's in Modern Medicine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 10; Hans-Martin Sass, "Brain life and brain death: A proposal for normative agreement," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (1989), 14:45-59; Michael Lockwood, "Warnock versus Powell (and Harradine): When does potentiality count?" Bioethics (1988), 2:3:187-213.

See also the use of the term "pre-embryo" in many national and international documents (a small sample): Ethics Advisory Board (1979) Report and Conclusions: HEW Support of Research Involving Human In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer, Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare, p. 101; National Institutes of Health Human Embryo Research Panel Meetings (Washington, D.C.: NIH, 1994), Feb. 2 meeting, pp. 27, 31, 50-80, 85-87, 104-106; in the Feb. 3, 1994 meeting, pp. 6-55; April 11 meeting, pp. 23-41, 9-22. See also, Dame Mary Warnock, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology, (London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1984), pp. 27 and 63; British House of Lords, "Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001"; Commonwealth of Australia, Select Senate Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill, (Canberra, Australia: Official Hansard Report, Commonwealth Government Printer, 1986); Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, On the Use of Human Embryos and Foetuses for Diagnostic, Therapeutic, Scientific, Industrial and Commercial Purposes, Recommendation 1046, 1986; and On the Use of Human Embryos and Foetuses in Scientific Research, Recommendation 1000, 1989; Ethics Committee of the American Fertility Society (AFS), "Ethical Considerations of the New Reproductive Technologies", Fertility and Sterility (1986), 46:27S. See also Jonsen, esp. Chapters 4 and 12. [Back]

2 For the accurate science in concert with the international nomenclature on human embryology involved in both sexual and asexual human reproduction, see Irving, "What Human Embryo? Funniest Mental Gymnastics from Medicine and Research" (Oct. 14, 2004), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_82whathumanembryo1.html; also Irving, "Playing God by manipulating man: Facts and frauds of human cloning" (October 4, 2003), presented twice at the Missouri Catholic Conference Annual Assembly Workshop, Jefferson City, MO, at: http://www.mocatholic.org/uploads/IrvingCloning3.pdf, and http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_22manipulatingman1.html [Back]

3 To better understand historically how so many religious leaders were caught up in the formal "birth" of bioethics in 1978 and since then, see Irving, "What is 'bioethics'?", http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_36whatisbioethics01.html. [Back]

4 See, e.g., Irving, "YOU DON'T NEED A SPERM!" (February 3, 2005), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irvi/irv_57donotneedsperm.html, and http://www.mocatholic.org/News/Press/IrvingWheeler.htm; also Irving, "Missouri: Fairy Tales Abound in Human Cloning Debates" (Feb. 12, 2005), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_86missourifairytales.html, and http://www.mocatholic.org/ [Back]

5 See, e.g., Richard McCormick, S.J., "Who or what is the preembryo?", Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1:1 (1991). In this paper McCormick draws heavily on the work of frog embryologist Clifford Grobstein, as well as from "an unpublished study of a research group of the Catholic Health Association entitled 'The Status and Use of the Human Preembryo', (p. 14). [Back]

6  The Carnegie Stages of Early Human Development is the basis for the Nomina Embryologica which was part of the larger Nomina Anatomica for decades until 1989. In 1999 the name was changed by the International Associations of Anatomists to Terminologia Embryologica and Terminologia Anatomica, which was published in 1999 by the IFAA and is available for sale in book or CD-Rom format at: http://www.thieme.com/SID2194056226451/productsubpages/pubid-1163116455.html. For on-line access to information about the international Nomina Embryologica Committee and the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Development, see U.S. national website at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology: http://nmhm.washingtondc.museum/, Human Developmental Anatomy Center; http://nmhm.washingtondc.museum/collections/hdac/index.htm, the Carnegie Collection of Embryology; http://nmhm.washingtondc.museum/collections/hdac/Carnegie_collection.htm.

The scientific quotes on human embryology herein are taken directly from the following internationally recognized human embryology textbooks in concert with the Carnegie Stages and the international nomenclature on human embryology: Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Muller, Human Embryology & Teratology (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001): In preparing this book, the authors have made full use of the [Carnegie Embryological] Collection and of the various published studies, whether by themselves or by others, based on what George W. Corner felicitously termed that "Bureau of Standards." ... Serious work in human embryology now depends on staging and the internationally accepted system of Carnegie embryonic stages (a term introduced by the senior author) has been adopted throughout. ... A scheme of embryonic stages can be found on the inside front cover of this book. These developmental stages are indicated by superscripts throughout this book, thereby avoiding interruptions in the flow of the text. (p. ix)

Ibid, O'Rahilly and Muller (1994): Wilhelm His, Senior (1831-1904), the founder of human embryology [Fig. 1-1]. ... [H]uman embryology is scarcely more than one hundred years old. The first to study the human embryo systematically was Wilhelm His, Senior, who established the basis of reconstruction, i.e., the assembling of three-dimensional form from microscopic sections. His, who has been called the "Vesalium of human embryology," published his three-volume masterpiece Anatomie menschlicher Embryonen in 1880-85 [His, Vogel, Leipzig]. In it the human embryo was studied as a whole for the first time. ... A detailed Handbook of Human Embryology by Keibel and Mall appeared in 1910-12. Franklin P. Mall, who studied under His, established the Carnegie Embryological Collection in Baltimore and was the first person to stage human embryos (in 1914). Mall's collection soon became the most important repository of human embryos in the world and has ever since served as a "Bureau of Standards". Mall's successor, George L. Streeter, laid down the basis of the currently used staging system for human embryos (1942-48), which was completed by O'Rahilly (1973) and revised by O'Rahilly and Muller (1987). (p. 3)

Keith Moore and T. V. N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (6th ed. only) (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998): Schleiden and Schwann were responsible for great advances being made in embryology when they formulated the cell theory in 1839. This concept stated that the body is composed of cells and cell products. [Back]