Why Hatch is Wrong on Human Life

C. Ward Kischer
The Week of July 16, 2001
Reproduced with Permission

On the June 28 edition of "Fox News Sunday," in a discussion of stem cell research, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), referring to a "spare embryo" obtained from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures, said: "It's not a human life until implanted in the uterus." "Spare embryos" are either frozen or manipulated in a petri dish. From the scientific evidence Hatch is wrong. A fish out of water is still a fish.

Hatch is not the only politician unschooled in the science of human embryology. At a congressional hearing in December 1998, Sen. Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa) read from a law banning human embryo research: "Embryos are organisms derived from human diploid cells." "I don't even know what that is," he said.

It is one thing to admit to one's own ignorance, but quite another for one to say he has studied a problem in human embryology for two years (as Hatch has claimed) and still make a patently false statement. The lack of understanding of human development also has extended to a prominent news host. Bill O'Reilly of Fox News said on July 3, 2000: "No one knows when human life begins." He repeated this on March 22, 2001, and, again, the next day, referred to the fetus as "potential human life." He did not distinguish between biological life and any other kind of life.

Then on June 26, 2001, in a discussion on stem cell research with the Rev. Frank Pavone, president of Priests for Life, O'Reilly posed the question: "[I]s an embryo in a [petri] dish a human life"? Fr. Pavone sought to invoke science. O'Reilly interrupted and said: "I'm not going to ask a scientist anything." Such refraction reduces everything to fiat.

The original and gravest canard of modern times was used by Justice Harry Blackmun, who declared in Roe v. Wade that the beginning of life could not be determined. Blackmun never mentioned biological life, but invoked medical, philosophical and theological life.

From Blackmun's deception to Sen. Hatch's declaration, the science of human embryology is being systematically rewritten according to political correctness.

Sen. Hatch's contention about when human life begins simply is not based on scientifically established fact. Those who write laws should be obliged to secure the relevant facts concerning those laws.

Yet, members of Congress are not the only people in government ignoring or distorting the basic facts of human embryology. On Dec. 2, 1998, Harold Varmus, who was then director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), issued a statement that he considered to be support for using the cells of an early embryo for stem cell research (the same position held by Sen. Hatch). Varmus declared: "Cells from the very earliest embryo (up to about the 16 cell stage) are totipotent stem cells" (able to form a whole organism). "The next stage (sic) . . . called a blastocyst . . . has cells called the inner cell mass. They are not totipotent . . . but pluripotent" (these cells will not form a whole organism, but may form tissues or organs). Later, he states: "human pluripotent stem cells are not embryos and are, therefore, not covered by the ban on federal funding" for human embryo research.

This tortuous and convoluted statement contains a multitude of errors and is word-parsing at its finest. Whether or not the cells are totipotent or pluripotent, the "spare" embryo is a stage of a whole human being. Removing cells from the inner cell mass destroys that human being. Varmus's conclusion essentially arose out of the deliberations, conclusions and recommendations of the federal government's National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), a highly flawed and partisan group, whose term has now expired.

"Spare embryos," leftovers from IVF procedures, are usually stored in the early cleavage (division) stages. Some may be stored just prior to the blastocyst stage. But some political pundits mistakenly call these stages "blastocysts" and "pluripotent." To date, the evidence tentatively supports the conclusion that the cells of these "spare embryos" are "totipotent." In the in-vivo state (in the mother's womb) they appear to remain "totipotent" well beyond this stage. In the womb, some late blastocysts are known to divide and form identical twins. The supposition that they may be "pluripotent" (again, capable of forming only certain types of tissue, not an entire human being) comes from studies on mice. But, the evidence is not there, as yet, for humans.

Why are Hatch, Blackmun, Varmus and O'Reilly (and so many others) wrong?

Science is the search for, and the discovery of, the truth. The truth of human embryology has not been hidden. It has been there all along. The science of the appearance of the new individual human life begins with the preparation for fertilization and ends in death (not just birth). Form changes, but the continuum of life remains. That is because the principles involved in development are manifest throughout all of life, as exemplified, for example, in the issue of stem cell research. Virtually every adult tissue has its stem cells. They are there for the purpose of renewal of lost cells and tissues and in reconstruction of injured or damaged tissues or organs. The efficiency of replacement or repair varies from tissue to tissue.

The life of the new individual human being begins at fertilization (conception). It is significant to state that every human embryologist, world wide, knows this (it is not a belief), and it is so stated in virtually every textbook of human embryology. This was intuitively known before the invention of the microscope, understood through deductive reasoning since, and directly observed by IVF procedures several decades ago.

It is important to understand that all of human development is a continuum. Under conditions we have come to understand and embrace as normal, all of human development from conception on is a fait accompli.

But, what about Sen. Hatch's claim that "an embryo in a petri dish is not a human life"? Well, does he mean to say it is human death? Not hardly. It is still a life process, but one that has been artificially suspended. This does not alter the integrity of the life process unless the manipulation is destructive.

The scientific consistency or quality of life is not short circuited by fertilization in-vitro or development in a petri dish.

The political parsing and distorting of the scientific terms of human embryology has not been limited to "totipotent" and "pluripotent" stem cells. Another interesting example is the misuse of the term pregnancy. Some claim a woman is not pregnant until implantation—when the new human life imbeds in her uterus. This misconception is then used to imply that the human embryo, prior to implantation, is "fair game" for chemical poisoning (abortifacients), and, in the case for experimentation in stem cell research, dismemberment. But the opening sentence of Carlson's basic and universally respected text on human embryology states: "Human pregnancy begins with the fusion of an egg and a sperm."

The reason this is true is that human development proceeds up to five or six days within the fallopian tube and uterus before implantation. The concern of human embryology is the new individual human being, whether it be in the fallopian tube, uterus or in a petri dish!

What kind of laws should be written concerning issues involving human embryology? First, and foremost, they must embrace and recognize this scientific fact: Conception initiates a new individual human being and the continuum of life.

Justice Blackmun ignored this indisputable biological truth and applied so-called "medical, philosophical and religious" considerations to his judicial reasoning, claiming, falsely, that the biological truth could not be determined.

The Supreme Court again abrogated the scientific facts in its Webster decision (majority opinion also written by Blackmun), which affirmed Blackmun's declaration in Roe. In Webster, an amicus curiae brief signed by 167 "scientists" and Nobel laureates supported that affirmation. Amazingly, not a single one of the 167 was a human embryologist!

The court's ongoing corruption of human embryology was most lately found in the Stenberg v. Carhart decision (on partial-birth abortion) in which several of the opinions refer to the fetus as "potential human life."

Since Roe v. Wade, the basic scientific facts of human embryology have become an anathema to politicians who seek to perpetuate abortion on demand, or provide legal cover for some new assault on human life in its earliest and most vulnerable stages of development.

Not one human embryologist was a member of the NBAC or of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel that was created by Varmus to advise the government on the ethics of medical research involving embryos. Additionally, in 1999, a group of 73 "scientists" were solicited by NIH for their support of stem cell research. But not a single one was a human embryologist.

Clausewitz once said: "War is too important to be left to the generals." It appears that human embryology is too important to be left to the human embryologists.