What Human Embryo?
Funniest Mental Gymnastics from Medicine and Research

Dianne N. Irving
Guild of St. Luke White Mass Presentation
St. John Seminary, Boston Archdiocese
Boston, Massachusetts
Copyright October 14, 2004
Reproduced with Permission


Has anyone noticed lately how so many words and phrases from diverse issues and diverse fields have taken on some odd and rather funny, amusing new meanings? Sort of a "cultural phenomenon" - owed in no small measure to the French philosopher and Father of Deconstructionism Jacques Derrida who just recently passed away - perhaps! Such ingenuity should surely not go unrecognized. So I thought it would be interesting to start collecting some of these gems from time to time, just for fun! I call them "gobbledygooks."

The definition of a "gobbledygook" is an amazingly broad and rich one. For example, dictionaries give the following: GOBBLEDYGOOK: (noun) nonsense; junk; psychobabble; non sequitur; absurdity; fraud; trick. (adj.): foolish; fake; meaningless; irrational; unreal; cunning; tricky; deceitful; disingenuous; crafty, etc.

Examples of "gobbledygooks" would include: 2 + 2 = 37. Carbon is water. Chicago is in Florida. The moon is made of blue cheese. Water boils at six degrees Fahrenheit. Squares are circles. The Statue of Liberty is in the Chesapeake Bay. Napoleon was Chinese. And geese lay golden eggs. Well - you get the picture. Gobbledygooks are not just factually wrong. They fly in the face of common sense!

The field of medicine has its own "gobbledygooks" - like, handing the new mother her "product of conception", or "pregnancy begins at implantation". But what I want to share with you is a related and equally amusing list of gobbledygooks from the field of science - specifically, terms that began their lives in the early abortion debates, but have since shifted into the current ones on human cloning and human embryonic stem cell research. It constitutes, in fact, The Mystery of "The Disappearing Human Embryo". And although these gobbledygooks currently lurk mostly in the halls of research labs and pages in biotech journals, physicians and other health care workers should expect them to recycle back into the daily practice of medicine at any moment now.


Because of the time restraints, let me cut right to the core of these scientific gobbledygooks - i.e., the deconstruction of the science of human embryology for political or other purposes - especially those objective scientific facts about how and when a human being begins to exist. But first let me make the following disclaimer before I begin: None of the accurate science that I am about to present is my subjective "opinion" or "misreading" of that science; nor is it "prolife", "religious", or even "Catholic" science. Rather I will present only those "secular" objective scientific facts in concert with the long-acknowledged internationally recognized nomenclature in human embryology.2

If anyone has objective scientific facts refuting these claims, I'd like to see the xerox copies from the pages of the human embryology textbooks from which they were copied.

Human beings can be reproduced sexually (fertilization) or asexually (cloning and other genetic engineering processes). We're most familiar with sexual reproduction (fertilization) - which I'll cover briefly in a moment. And an example of asexual reproduction that we are already familiar with is naturally occurring human monozygotic twins and triplets (in vivo). Other examples of asexual reproduction that many are not familiar with include the myriad of cloning and other genetic engineering techniques now already available and being used, e.g., germ line cell nuclear transfer (GLCNT), pronuclei transfer, mitochondria transfer, twinning (cloning by embryo splitting or multiplication, now offered in IVF clinics),3 parthenogenesis, hemicloning, the use of artificial genes, chromosomes, nuclei, sperm and oocytes,4 nanocloning5 and the use of other "converging technologies",6 etc.

But whether sexually or asexually reproduced, regardless of any "definitions" of these various processes, whether by fertilization or by "cloning" or by "genetic engineering" - the point is that all of these reproductive processes result in a new genetically unique living human being - a single-cell human organism, the human embryo. And the moral point that arises from this objective scientific fact is that it is always wrong to knowingly and directly kill an innocent human being. Nor can evil can be done so good may come of it.

A. Human Sexual Reproduction (fertilization)

I realize that most of you already know the basics of human sexual reproduction - fertilization - so I'll not repeat them here this evening. But I will just touch on a few of the finer details of that process - precisely because the "devil's in the details" so to speak, and it is the details that are being deconstructed in these cloning and stem cell debates.

Among the most critical accurate scientific details to keep straight are the following, as they document that the immediate product of sexual human reproduction is a new living genetically unique single-cell human organism, human being, human embryo, human zygote, human individual - and that normal fertilization takes place in the fallopian tube (not the uterus):7 (emphases added)

Moore and Persaud (1998): "Zygote: This cell results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo)." (p. 2)

O'Rahilly and Muller (2001): "Although life is a continuous process, fertilization ... is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte." (p. 31)

O'Rahilly and Muller (2001): "The zygote is characteristic of the last phase of fertilization and is a unicellular embryo." (p. 19)

Carlson (1999): "Fertilization age: dates the age of the embryo from the time of fertilization." (p. 23)

Moore and Persaud (1998): "The expression 'fertilized ovum' refers to a secondary oocyte that is impregnated by a sperm; when fertilization is complete, the oocyte becomes a zygote." (p. 2)

Larsen (1997): "In this text, we begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual. ... Fertilization takes place in the oviduct. These pronuclei fuse with each other to produce the single, diploid, 2N nucleus of the fertilized zygote. This moment of zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic development." (p. 17)

(sexual reproduction)

Larsen (1997): "[W]e begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual." (p. 1)

O'Rahilly and Muller (2001): "Fertilization takes place normally in the ampulla (lateral end) of the uterine tube." (p. 31)

Moore and Persaud (1998): "The usual site of fertilization is the ampulla of the uterine tube [fallopian tube], its longest and widest part. ... Although fertilization may occur in other parts of the tube, it does not occur in the uterus. ... Human development begins when an oocyte is fertilized." (p. 34)

Carlson (1999): "Human pregnancy begins with the fusion of an egg and a sperm,... Finally, the fertilized egg, now properly called an embryo, must make its way into the uterus ... .". (p. 2)

Carlson 1994: "After the eighth week of pregnancy the period of organogenesis (embryonic period) is largely completed and the fetal period begins." (p. 407)

These are the objective scientific facts in concert with the international nomenclature for human embryology, and known for over a hundred years. They are not subjective, personal, prolife, religious or Catholic "opinions".

One doesn't have to be religious or pro-life to recognize the correct science. Take the late Planned Parenthood President Alan Guttmacher, M.D., as an example. In his 1933 book Life in the Making,8 he wrote: "We of today know that man ... starts life as an embryo within the body of the female; and that the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm. This all seems so simple and evident to us that it is difficult to picture a time when it was not part of the common knowledge." How far we have digressed since then!

B. Human a-sexual reproduction (cloning, genetic engineering, etc.)

Many of the same scientific terms just addressed are also currently being deconstructed in the debates on human cloning and human embryonic stem cell research. But first let me make a quick comparison of human development after sexual and asexual reproduction - using the rough analogy of "zipping up" and "zipping down".

"ZIPPING UP": Briefly, following sexual reproduction the early human embryo grows and develops by means of multiplying its cells, and by methylating and demethylating9 the DNA in each of those cells - part of the critical natural process called "regulation".10 That is, the DNA in each cell is "allowed to speak", or is "silenced", by adding or removing these methylation bars -- depending on what products, tissues, or organs the embryo needs to grow and develop at any point in time. These products then "cascade"11 throughout growth and development. The more specialized, or differentiated, a cell, the more methylated its DNA becomes. I'll refer to this process during growth and development following sexual human reproduction as a sort of "zipping up" or "programming" of the DNA of a cell. By adulthood, the DNA in many of the cells of the human being has been almost completely "silenced" by the insertion of methylation bars -- such as in human skin cells.

"ZIPPING DOWN": In a-sexual reproduction, many of these processes operate in reverse. For example, in using the somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning technique, one begins with a highly specialized or differentiated cell (such as a skin cell -- in which some or even most of the DNA in that cell's nucleus has been "silenced"), and then one incrementally removes the methylation bars on that DNA until the DNA in that cell is in the same state of differentiation as the "fertilized egg" -- resulting in a new, single-cell zygote, an organism, a single-cell embryo or human being. That is, you begin with just a "cell", but end up with a new single-cell human being! This is roughly what happened with the production of Dolly the sheep. Quoting human molecular geneticists Strachan and Read (after they described "twinning" as a form of cloning):

A form of animal cloning can also occur as a result of artificial manipulation to bring about a type of asexual human reproduction ... Wilmut et al (1997) reported successful cloning of an adult sheep. For the first time an adult nucleus had been reprogrammed to become totipotent once more, just like the genetic material in the fertilized oocyte from which the donor cell had ultimately developed."12 (emphases added)

And as documented above, a "fertilized oocyte" is a single-cell human being - a human embryo - a single-cell human organism.

Even the proponents of human cloning admit this. Expressing disbelief that some deny that human cloning immediately produces an embryo, Van Blerkom, human embryologist at the University of Colorado, quipped: "If it's not an embryo, what is it?", and added that researchers' efforts to avoid the word "embryo" in this context are "self-serving."13 NIH cloning researcher Ron MacKay, in reaction to Irving Weissman's amazing claim that SCNT is not cloning if done for the purpose of "research" (see below), gave a similar response: ""To start with, people need a fairy tale. Maybe that's unfair, but they need a story line that's relatively simple to understand."14

It is important to note, however, that nuclear transfer is cloning - regardless of why it is performed -- and that the cloned human embryo reproduced would not be "virtually genetically identical to the donor cell".15 That is, the cloned human embryo would have a different genome due to the presence in the embryo of foreign mitochondrial DNA from the enucleated oocyte used, and the lack of the mitochondrial DNA from the donor cell used - which fact is known to cause rejection reactions in the recipients16 - just one example of some of those nasty "details" usually left out of the "fairy tales".

Forget the fairy tales - they are just meant to confuse you. All you have to remember are these simple basic objective scientific facts in concert with the international nomenclature: the immediate product of both sexual and asexual human reproduction is a new living genetically unique single-cell human organism, human zygote, human embryo, human individual, human being.

So, how did all these "fairy tales" get started, anyhow?


Usually there is no single reason why things like this happen, but it is certain that historically there has been no greater harbinger of the current decay of the scientific, medical, and legal terminology than the continual persistence in the propagation of the fake scientific term "pre-embryo" and its multitudinous equally-fake "substitutes" - gobbledygooks and fairy tales of the first order.

A. The "Pre-embryo"

Long story,17 but briefly, the term "pre-embryo" was coined in the late 1960's by Richard McCormick, S.J., and Clifford Grobstein (a frog embryologist), subsequently incorporated into our governmental and private institutions, picked up by the Warnock Commission in the UK, and since then literally spread around the world. It is, in effect, the false scientific basis for all the current debates on human cloning, human genetic engineering, and human embryonic stem cell research. But the term "pre-embryo" is a false scientific term, and has been formally rejected by the international nomenclature for human embryology, along with the related term "individualization". As expressed by Swiss human embryologist O'Rahilly:

"(1) [I]t 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."18 (emphases added)

Now, there is a correct19 and an "incorrect" way to state the "pre-embryo" - although both ways are equally effective. Either way, the purpose is obvious: to reduce the "moral status" of these new living human beings. If there is no live human embryo there, but rather just a "pre-embryo", then its use in destructive research and other projects is thereby "scientifically" justified - although it must be killed with "respect", of course.

In the correct understanding of the scientifically erroneous term "pre-embryo" it is agreed that the immediate product of human reproduction is a human being; it is just not a human "person" yet. Focus is on the philosophical concept of an "individual", because only an individual can be "ensouled". Thus the immediate product of reproduction is just a "genetic individual", not a "developmental individual" -- and only a "developmental individual" can be a "person" (ensouled). It can't be a "developmental individual" until after 14-days when twinning can no longer take place. Before that time it "doesn't know how many individuals it will be yet". Thus it is just a "pre-embryo" -- not an embryo or a "person".

The scientific and philosophical refutations of this argument are extensive,20 yet despite the false distinctions (the first of many to come!) and the massive scientific and philosophical flaws in the "pre-embryo" claim it continues to provide the "theoretical" basis for all of the various and sundry "delayed personhood" arguments - arguments that are required to justify a "reduced moral status" of the early human embryo or fetus.

But suffice it to point out here, e.g., that it is a scientific fact that monozygotic twinning, which is a form of cloning,21 can take place after 14-days,22 and that the early human embryo is both a genetic and a developmental individual from the first moment of its existence throughout the entire continuum of human growth and development through adulthood. There is even such a continuum between monozygotic twins. And if twinning does take place it simply means that one human "developmental" individual has become two human "developmental" individuals by means of asexual human production (see Section II.B supra). Indeed, the scientific fact is that at fertilization or cloning the "matter" is already "appropriately organized", and thus ensoulment could take place! And a realist philosophical system can successfully reason back from the accurate empirical facts of human embryology to "immediate personhood".23

But right now those philosophical arguments would probably just make your eyes cross -- so instead let me just "push the logic" of the "pre-embryo" and similar arguments for "delayed personhood", and see where it takes us.

First, all the early biological marker events for "delayed personhood" in bioethics24 are themselves simply arguments for "potential" human persons, because the physiological precondition for them all is the single-cell human being formed at fertilization. Second, if only those who can actively exercise "rational attributes" (e.g., thinking, knowing, consciousness, willing, choosing, communicating, etc.) and "sentience" (e.g., feeling pain and pleasure) are "persons", then you would have to agree that the following list of adult human beings are not "persons" -- and thus have no ethical or legal rights or protections as "persons": Alzheimer's patients, Parkinson's patients, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, the comatose, drug addicts, alcoholics, the frail elderly, paraplegics, those with damaged nerve disorders - in fact all mentally and physically handicapped - as well as McCormick and Grobstein themselves while they were sleeping! You would also have to agree with bioethicist and animal rights advocate Richard Frye that such adult human non-persons should be substituted for animal "persons" in destructive experimental research.25 Would you agree?

B. "Pre-embryo substitutes"

Unfortunately, this false "pre-embryo" distinction between a human being and a human person spun off an astonishing series of similarly false "distinctions" for "delayed personhood" in early bioethics - what I call "pre-embryo substitutes".

(1) For example, one can "distinguish" between the earliest human embryo and that same human embryo/fetus at some later point in development with the following: a phase sortal vs. a substance sortal; only information content there vs. information capacity there; a biological individual vs. an ontological individual; a transient nature vs. a stable human nature; a biologically integrated whole vs. a psychologically integrated whole; a biological life only vs. a personal life; an unconscious biological life vs. a conscious personal life; a lower brain life vs. a cortical brain life; "no one home" vs. "some one home"; a "zoe" vs. a "bios"'; a possible or potential human being vs. an actual human being; a possible or potential person vs. an actual human person; an object vs. a subject; a member of the human species vs. an evolving member of the human species; no "rational attributes" or "sentience" there vs. "rational attributes" or "sentience" there; no human cognition vs. human cognition, etc. Interestingly, like the term "pre-embryo" itself, literally every one of these other "distinctions" were also grounded on grossly erroneous "science".26 Even though the term "pre-embryo" is not used, the end result is the same: the "moral status" of the early human embryo/fetus is significantly reduced.

(2) The same moral conclusion can also be arrived at by simply claiming both that the human being begins at fertilization, but that the human embryo begins at the 5-7 day blastocyst stage.27 But this is a scientific contradiction; one can't have it both ways. If the immediate product of human reproduction is simultaneously a human being and a human embryo, and if the human being begins to exist at fertilization, then the human embryo begins to exist at fertilization as well.

(3) Or, one can accomplish the same thing by retaining the term "embryo", but defining it as just a "cell" or as a "ball of cells". That is, no real human being, human embryo, human individual, or human organism is there -- as in the multiple Congressional testimonies of researcher Michael West (Advanced Cell Technology, Inc.):


"The fertilization of the egg cell by a sperm leads to a single cell called the "zygote". From this first cell, multiple rounds of cell division over the first week result in a microscopic ball of cells with very unusual properties. This early embryo, called the "preimplantation embryo", has not implanted in the uterus to begin a pregnancy ... Should the embryo implant in the uterus, the embryo, at approximately 14 days post fertilization will form what is called the primitive streak; this is the first definition that these "seed cells" will form an individual human being ... ."28

Here West fails to mention that the "zygote" is not just a single "cell"; it is a single-cell organism. They simply leave off the critical term "organism" and keep the term "single cell"! Similarly, West defines the "human embryo" (blastocyst) here as just a "microscopic ball of cells", rather than as a whole human organism, a human being. Then we are "taught" that: "Seed cells will form ... . " What? There is no scientific human embryology textbook that refers to the totipotent cells of the human blastocyst as "seeds" or as "seed cells". None. (Although there are such terms that are derived from ancient gnosticism and philosophy, e.g., the Stoics and Plotinus, which later influenced certain "theologies"). And these "seed cells" will form - in the future -- an "individual human being"? But the objective scientific fact is that the individual human being is already there.

Likewise, one can observe the same "reductio ad cell" language in the work of influential California physician Irving Weissman, the driving force behind California's Stem Cell Research Initiative (Proposition 71) currently pending:


"In normal development, the fertilized egg undergoes 7-9 cell divisions to make the blastocyst, a ball of cells that has minimal specialization. ... For many the blastocyst is a ball of cells like many other cell lines from other tissues, and it would be a violation of their medical oaths not to use these cells to gain valuable medical knowledge that could translate to therapies."29

Of course, in the real world a "fertilized egg" is a single-cell organism, a human being; and the "ball of cells" is an older multi-celled human organism, a blastocyst, a human being. Indeed, the whole blastocyst is the embryo, the human being - not just the cells in the inner cell mass from which the "stem cells" are derived.30 Removing the "stem cells" from that blastocyst is to remove them from a living human being - not from just a piece of "tissue". It seems to me that it would be a violation of the medical oath to knowingly and willing kill these living innocent human beings, to practice in a scientific field that one is not academically credentialed in, and to falsify that science along the way. This scientific deconstruction is even worse than the "pre-embryo" from which it sprang. Now there isn't even a human being there any more:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5