Quid Sit Veritas?
The Odyssey of One Human Embryologist As A Modern Diogenes

C. Ward Kischer
Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy
The University of Arizona
College of Medicine
Tucson, Arizona 85724

Book: The Human Development Hoax:
Time to Tell the Truth
pp99-124, (1997)
C. Ward Kischer and Dianne N. Irving
Reproduced with Permission

Science should be revealed and evaluated by public exposure. But, when science, more specifically, human development, is being reinvented, it must be subject to analysis and critique by scientists who know the subject, so that the public might be properly informed to evaluate that science, lest it become politicized. Without proper dialogue, public policy could be changed or invoked to dramatically affect our societal evolution, and this has already occurred.

Ignorance is no special domain of the unschooled. In the effort to make public policy, socio-legal politicos (some of them scientists) have misstated the factual knowledge of human embryology and engaged in a kind of "doublespeak". Further, the more outrageous the misrepresentations have become, the more frequent they have appeared. This signals the desperation that revisionists of human embryology display. The overkill has often resulted in gross canards. But, where is the ordinary outlet through or by which misleading comments or outright lies can be corrected?

In 1990 Brent Bozell and Brent Baker edited a book entitled: And That's The Way It Isn't (Media Research Center, Alexandria, Virginia, 1990), which documented and confirmed what most people sensed and believed for many years: that the media have been and are heavily biased towards liberal politics and policies. The ordinary citizen expects a free press to report the truth. But, what has actually occurred has been an eclipse of truth and a dearth of balance.

Bozell and Baker provide an example of media bias on the subject of abortion. They evaluated media labeling of proponents and opponents of abortion over the last four months of 1988. They found that proponents received positive labels 97% of the time, while opponents received positive labels only 21% of the time.

This kind of bias seemed impressive to me; but, surely, I believed, not what one would ordinarily encounter when trying to correct false statements and concepts concerning science, especially when made by persons who are not scientists.

I was wrong! Those in control of the major media sources are apparently unwilling to balance the cascade of false statements made with the real truth, even though they probably know the real truth, yet speak and act as though it does not exist.

In 1989 Eleanor Smeal addressed a convention of NOW (National Organization for Women) in which she made the following statement. "What makes our country great is the Bill of Rights, which says you have the freedom to do what you want". I contend that this mind set is the legacy of a judicial system gone awry. Stability of any social system is usually threatened or strained the denser the population becomes. When this occurs, more controls must be involved, sometimes with abbreviation or even loss of some freedoms. However, in our country it seems the opposite has been occurring. Our population has nearly doubled in the past 50 years. Despite this fact, I contend that since the early 1950's, whether intended or not, decisions by the Supreme Court have set a course for public behavior based on a massive experiment: to see how much freedom the citizens of this country could exercise before the social system would come apart. A case can be made that the right to have an abortion is born out of this "freedom" concept.

Proponents of abortion find additional justification in errant conclusions drawn about human development in Roe v. Wade, and from other sources promoted by the major media outlets. Smeal compounded the errors in her speech by making another absurd comment, false not just by concept, but false through known biological fact: "everybody knows that life begins only after birth." At about the same time, a female candidate for a state office in New Jersey made the same statement via a political promo on cable channel WOR. I began to hear more of this kind of rhetoric. On the CNN Crossfire program of July 10th, 1990 the guest was a pediatric physician by the name of Holly Galland. The subject of the program was abortion and she made the following comment in response to a question as to when life begins: "Not even the Academy of Science (sic) can decide that. " Of course, she meant the National Academy of Science.

The Prehuman Claim

Since I was trained as an embryologist, more specifically, an experimental embryologist that gravitated into the teaching and experience of human embryology soon after my Ph.D. degree, I began to take more notice of statements, such as the above, made within the public domain. I have been teaching the subject of human embryology in one form or another since 1960, mostly to medical students. Statements, such as those cited above, not only are absurd, but are politically motivated. Yet the problem was (and still is) that they were being expressed to a lay public, most of whom were most likely uninformed about human development. In the November 22nd, 1989 issue of National Review, Ernest van den Haag wrote an article titled "Is there a middle ground?" The substance of his article included several questionable statements concerning human embryology. For example, he claimed that the embryo is "pre-human". In support of this he stated that the embryo related to the human baby as a larva relates to a butterfly. This is a canard of the primary water. This comparison may satisfy contemporary social engineers but is biologically absurd. Even an entomologist would be grievously offended by such a notion. Van den Haag reaffirmed his claim in response to two letters sent to the National Review (February 5, 1990) but he did so by stating: "things are what they are, not what they become. That goes for concepts, too" (National Review, February 5, 1990, pages 6-8). If van den Haag really believes this, then he need not have likened human development to that of an insect. He might as well have compared it to an auto factory, more specifically, an embryo compared to a fender. It makes as much sense. The effect is to reduce and diminish the quality and status of the human during development.

No human embryologist, now or ever in recorded history, has ever referred to the human embryo as "pre-human". Is van den Haag suggesting that our science classes world-wide should now teach this new concept?

An Embryologist Responds

It was at this time that I took closer note as to what appeared in the print media and what was being announced via television and radio talk shows. I also noted that at this time there was no responsible retort to these wild claims that were being passed so easily and frequently through and among the lay public. I searched the literature for similar types of misrepresentations and to my surprise found numerous articles written essentially by psychologists, philosophers, and theologians which purported to invoke embryological facts but which were, in fact, misrepresentations and outright falsehoods. I found essentially no human embryologists who were answering these distorted claims. Therefore, it was at this time that I decided van den Haag's article should be rebutted. Ernest van den Haag is a political analyst. He has frequently contributed (and still does) to National Review and has authored and co-authored books on socio-legal issues. To my knowledge, he has no background whatsoever in human embryology, yet in his article in National Review he invoked a great deal of what he believes to be the science of human embryology. In fact, in that article he stated that as development proceeds "the embryo acquires human characteristics". Further, he asked "when does intrauterine life become human life?" He might defend his statements by claiming he was speaking rhetorically; but he fails to say so, or to distinguish between the biological terms and philosophical ones. As a consequence many readers have been confused, and often doubt their own common sense.

I prepared a manuscript in rebuttal essentially to the van den Haag article. I titled it: "Concerning Abortion: The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Biological Truth". I sent this manuscript to National Review and specifically to an assistant editor, Mark Cunningham. My cover letter indicated that I had been teaching human embryology for more than 25 years mainly to medical students and had wished to set the record straight on the misinformation within van den Haag's article. This manuscript neither advocated an anti- or pro-view of abortion nor did it include any political appeals. It contained only statements which referred to the so-called scientific information which van den Haag used in his essay, and reviewed what is currently known within the science of human embryology and how this contradicted the statements and inferences by van den Haag. This manuscript was rejected out-of-hand and resumed to me with a cover letter indicating that their policy was one of not normally accepting unsolicited manuscripts but acquiring them from a standard pool of contributors from which they normally drew for inclusions in their issues. I also sent a copy of the manuscript to van den Haag but never received a reply. I then embarked upon a virtual three year effort to get this manuscript published.

Having spent my career in a publish or perish atmosphere I have been no stranger to the mechanisms of writing and submitting manuscripts for publication and getting them accepted in various Journals and dealing with reviewers and editors. Therefore, I fully expected this manuscript would be submitted for review by whichever editor of the Journal to which it was submitted. The manuscript explained the need to reveal the known scientific facts about human development and was divided into four subtopics, each of which had been misrepresented, distorted or deliberately changed by many lay publications and which had been discussed on various talk shows, news programs, and by commentators, with respect to the "science" of human development. These four areas were 1) the beginning of life, 2) the quality of being human, 3) viability, and 4) sentience.

The beginning of life

In brief, what this manuscript said was that those invoking a question of when life began would fail to distinguish between the biological definition of life and philosophical, religious, social or political life. At best it was disingenuous for writers or commentators to raise the question of when life began and not to include what we know as the biological phenomenon of life. A phenomenon of life began in the evolutionary sense approximately 4 billion years ago. From a moment in time a system of reproduction was evolved which sustained a continuum from that original moment. That was the beginning of life. But, in all the previous comments written and spoken within the public issue of abortion, of which I was aware, this concept had rarely been discussed. The consequence of this was (and unfortunately still is) that many lay people were confused and even asked themselves if in fact that issue within the womb of the pregnant woman was really alive? At the time very few scientists were speaking out and answering these kinds of outrageous inferences. Physicians, especiallY, appeared to be conspicuously absent from the public debate. Therefore, I felt compelled to at least put forth the biological explanation of the concept of life. Indeed, in van den Haag's article in National Review he makes the following statement: "The infant is unquestionably alive, unquestionably human, and viable outside the mother, whereas the fetus might not be." He offers no further clarification, or explanation of this statement.

In an amici curiae brief presented to the Supreme Court, specifically cited by Justice Blackmun, in the Webster case (In the Supreme Court of the United States, October, 1988. William L. Webster, et al. v. Reproductive Health Services, et al. Arnici Curiae Brief of 167 Distinguished Scientists and Physicians Including 11 Nobel Laureates in Support of Appellees) it is stated that the beginning of life cannot be determined and cannot lend itself to an empirical test such as would take place in most bench-type scientific research. This is a presumptuous statement and most unfortunate that so-called scientists would make this outrageous claim. If they are referring to the beginning of life occurring over 4 billion years ago, they are correct, because that moment in time and the environmental conditions then existing can never be repeated. But to leave the issue there is more than disingenuous. What we have seen, and see, with every case of fertilization and subsequent pregnancy is the repeated observation of life forming as a new individual by the union of a sperm and ovum. From an experimental point of view, the continuum of human life has been confirmed with every case of fertilization since the first hominid was conceived. Further, in that same brief, the amici state that "the essence of life cannot be determined". This is in direct contradiction to perhaps the best definition of life, and its essence, ever put forward, that by Wendell M. Stanley, discoverer of Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Nobel Prize winner in 1946, in which he said:

"The essence of life is the ability to reproduce. This is accomplished by the utilization of energy to create order out of disorder, to bring together into a specific predetermined pattern from semi-order or even from chaos all the component parts of that pattern with the perpetuation of that pattern with time - this is life."

Stanley's definition satisfies most if not all biological scientists, and it should be satisfactory for virtually all human embryologists. But, of course it does not cut across all of the lines of esoteric definitions of life such as political, religious, financial, social, psychological, etc., and was never intended to do so. The major problem has been and continues to be the failure of many, e.g., the pro-choice advocacy, to distinguish, by what they write and what they say, between the biological distinction and the socio-legal distinctions.

The quality of being human

The second topic which has been abused and which I described strictly in biological terms is the quality of being human. Indeed, as van den Haeg stated in his article: "As development proceeds, the embryo acquires human characteristics." van den Haag further states the embryo lacks distinctly human characteristics which might entitle it to a social protection and then follows this by asking "when does intrauterine life become: human life?"

Rivers Singleton, Jr. wrote an article published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (Paradigms of Science/Society interaction; The Abortion Controversy, 32:174-193, 1989), in which he suggested (wrongly, of course) that the human fetus contains gill slits, which would then put it in the category of a fish or an amphibian. Singleton has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. There is no indication that he has any background in anatomy or human embryology.

Carl Sagan has been a major contributor at almost regular intervals in Parade magazine, a nationally syndicated magazine delivered with Sunday newspapers throughout the nation. Carl Sagan (with wife Ann Druyan) wrote a solicitous article on abortion and human development in the April 22th, 1990 issue entitled: "The Question of Abortion". Sagan is an astrophysicist and astronomer. There is no indication I have found that he has any background or training in human embryology. In this article he made several major errors concerning human development, but he also inferred that there are developmental stages in the case of the human which "resemble a worm, reptile, and a pig". In fact, Sagan and Druyan described a four week embryo with "something like the gill arches of a fish or an amphibian" and they also say it has a "pronounced tail". The real truth is that in the case of the human embryo, no gill slits ever appear. Further the human embryo never develops a tail. Some embryological texts refer to the caudal area of the human embryo as having a tail process. There are elements within that tail process which if in another specie would differentiate into a tail and its component parts, but in the case of the human these elements degenerate. There is an anomalous condition in which a caudal appendage will appear in the case of the human but this has no intrinsic movement and no coordinated differentiation of the bony and muscular tissue which would allow for intrinsic movement. It is a different kind of tissue altogether and in no sense would represent a tail. Van den Haag's query, and the errant statements by Singleton, Sagan, and others, are essentially grounded within what was known as, the Basic Biogenetic Law. This "law" was conceived in 1866 by a developmental biologist called Haeckel and from his ideas of development the axiom was developed which stated Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny. Literally, this means development, or the stages in human development, recapitulate (show again) the phylogeny (forms) of lesser species. Therefore, a frivolous notion followed which suggested that the adult forms of lesser vertebrates in the evolutionary tree were demonstrated in the embryonic forms of human development, a notion still found in biology texts today.

Immediately after the article appeared in Parade by Sagan and Drnyan, I called the New York office of Parade and spoke to one who gave his name as Larry Smith, Managing Editor. I complained about the many errors in the article and asked if parade would publish a brief article of corrections. I was told they would not. Further, Smith became very defensive concerning the Sagans.

On August 19th, approximately 4 months later, they published a page of excerpts from letters they had received concerning the Sagans' article. Only one excerpt referred to a correction, and that one was phrased in such a way as to appear moot: "that criterion [for thought] is as arbitrary as all others mentioned . . . viability, renal function, facial characteristics, etc...."

But, the editors simply ignored that fact with examples like the one from Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin: "I thought the article's effort at building a consensus was noble and much needed on this important issue"!

The problem, of course, is that Sagan (and the Editors) attempt to build a consensus based on misrepresentations!

It is little wonder then that even today writers such as Haag, Sagan and Singleton make the inference, assumed by many lay people, that human development passes through developmental stages of such lesser organisms as a worm, reptile, or a pig. The tragedy of this axiom really has been that it was obviated 38 years prior to 1866 by publication of the laws of Von Baer (1828). He stated, correctly, that developmental stages of higher organisms simply resembled the developmental or embryonic stages of lesser organisms. This means that the developmental stages of all vertebrates are simply similar, and that development follows an established plan, the basics of which are repeated from one species to the next. It also means that the differences between vertebrates as one ascends through the evolutionary tree are rather small, but one does not need to see major or extensive changes in order to distinguish between closely related species. For example, recently Morris Goodman of Wayne State University has shown that the DNA sequences of hemoglobin from humans and chimpanzees is approximately 98.4% identical. This is not really surprising to embryologists. That small 1.6% difference makes all the difference. And it is small differences which account for the uniqueness among closely related species.


The third topic which I considered in my manuscript and which had fallen prey to the political aspects of the abortion controversy was viability. Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, tentatively established the quality of personhood for the developing human in terms of its viability, which the Supreme Court defined as that time of development at which the fetus, if born, would survive. The Court indicated survivability had been recorded at 24 weeks post-fertilization. To the human embryologist, and which should be of even more significance to obstetricians, is the fact that viability is really no landmark at all for establishing the rights or equal protection under the law for a newly born "person". The reason for this is that if a fetus is born prematurely its quality of life may be compromised and this becomes less secure the earlier the birth. Indeed, in terms of its biological well-being, a full term fetus is far better off than being born at 24 weeks. Cases are on record in which born fetuses have survived, as early as 22 weeks post fertilization. Normally, a fetus born at this time, even though its subsequent care is given through an incubator, chemical additive treatments or intubation to assist its breathing, and the best nursing attendants available, its long term survival may be seriously in jeopardy and the quality of its survival is correspondingly diminished. Viability as such would be important to a pro-life advocacy since Roe v. Wade indicated that in the case of survival the fetus born at any specific time would enjoy equal protection of the law. Therefore the pro-life advocacy would prefer to see as early a birth as possible to which they could point and indicate that subsequent to that time, if it be 22 weeks or even earlier, no abortions should be allowed. But, to the human embryologist the use of viability to assign civil rights or civil protection to a born fetus is at best disingenuous and at worst a bogus issue. The quality of survival was never considered by the Roe court.

However, it was discussed in the Webster case, and the "viability" concept was reaffirmed. Blackmun stated in the Roe case that the compelling point of the state's interest in the fetus was that of "viability" and that this was so because: "the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful (sic) life outside the mother's womb"!

Blackmun references Dorland's 24th Medical Dictionary in defining viability, which is stated as: "can live after birth" and "capable of living outside the uterus". Meaningful is Blackmun's word, not Dorland's.

One must ask meaningful to whom? If the fetus has its say it would stay in the womb until it was full term, and prior to the court's viability the fetus and embryo would, of course, be carefully and methodically developing for the purpose of being born at term!

One of the more specious notions growing out of the "viability" concept is the added nonsense of capable of living (outside the womb) "on its own". This is deliberately deceitful, because not even a full term baby can "survive on its own". It needs more care than when in the womb.

The concept of sentience

The fourth topic in the manuscript was devoted towards sentience. This term from time to time has had different definitions. However, the generally accepted definition has been, and is, "awareness of one's self". This term is not derived from any aspect of human embryology, but rather it appears it was derived from the field of psychology. Clifford Grobstein, a developmental biologist, but not a human embryologist, seized upon this term and related it to thought. Interviewed by Psychology Today in 1989 he presented six essential aspects of individuality. He related them to specific stages or times of development. Psychic individuality, he claimed, occurred at 26 weeks even though he admitted this was arbitrary. He identified this with sentience or thought. Sagan and Drayan in their article in Parade similarly claimed that sentience or "thought" occurred at 30 weeks of development post-fertilization. Likewise, van den Haag, in his article, implied that at the time of so-called sentience the brain or neural system dispensed awareness. One can only speculate at this kind of relationship. There are no definitive or conclusive data which would support the onset of thought in a human fetus. The tracings from electroencephalograms (EEGs) do not show "thought". Rather, the only conclusion we can draw, particularly in testing the neural activity in a fetus, is the reflection of "alertness of neurons". Thought is a concept and needs an historical component. No fetuses or infants relate that and, indeed, no infants can be interviewed so as to provide an historical record of having expressed thoughts which could be associated with any bodily actions or movements. Grobstein's stages are arbitrary and there is no scientific basis for them. In fact, all so-called stages are arbitrary and are important to only embryologists and obstetricians in the taxonomic sense. This is because all of development subsequent to initial contact of sperm and oocyte under conditions which we have come to understand as nominal, is a fait accompli. AD of development, therefore, is part of the continuum of human life. Sentience is not a topic taught in basic embryology courses by embryologists. Newborns do not respond to vocal commands. Therefore whether or not thought is part of the expressions of a newborn infant is moot and specious. Neonatologists who are used to producing and interpreting EEGs from newborns will admit to the many difficulties in interpreting the wave patterns. Usually there is a problem of background noise plus the lack of symmetry on the tracing patterns, and the irregularities involved in those patterns are nominally reflecting what is called anarchy. A correlated and symmetrical tracing only gradually appears in electroencephalograms as development, postbirth, and maturing eventually occur.

The Rejections

This then was the substance of the manuscript which I had prepared in rebuttal to van den Haag's article in National Review and which was summarily rejected by Assistant Editor Cunningham. The manuscript was then submitted in succession to both lay and scientific publications, including abbreviated versions to newspapers. In each case the substantive portions of the manuscript which I have just described were kept intact. However, the format and style was changed, although not significantly, according to the journal or media source to which I submitted it for consideration.

Over the course of the next three years this manuscript was submitted to 13 lay publications and 5 scientific publications, each time being rejected and in virtually every case never submitted for review.

Following the rejection by National Review I wrote to Reader's Digest and as per their instructions received by telephone I included in my letter a brief description of the manuscript and why I had written it. I then asked if they would be interested in the article. Their reply included the following sentence: "After careful consideration we have decided your material would not work as an original article in Reader's Digest." They went on to say that most of their articles "are prepared on assignment by staff writers or regular contributors to the magazine." Next, I submitted it to the Atlantic. Their reply was "I am afraid one of the two articles on abortion we just published, though different from the piece you propose, must preclude us from taking up the subject again for some while." Following this, I sent the manuscript to New Republic, Family Circle, and The Saturday Evening Post. Rejections followed each of these submissions even though the New Republic and Family Circle had previously published articles on abortion with false and misleading statements about human development. Family Circle replied that the manuscript "just isn't right for us". The New Republic replied with a form letter of rejection. The Saturday Evening Post, even though it is the official organ of the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society was similarly not interested. Their form letter of rejection included the comment "we feel this article is inappropriate for our readership". During this time I rewrote and reduced the manuscript in size so that it would conform to a newspaper Op-Ed piece. I then sent it to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Arizona Republic. Each Op-Ed editor quickly rejected the article. I wrote another abbreviated form concentrating only on the origin of life and sent it to the Arizona Daily Star, which, to my surprise, published it Subsequently I condensed all four of the topics within this manuscript to the format of another newspaper Op-Ed piece and submitted it to the Tucson Citizen, which published it. But the larger manuscript was still in limbo and I was still having great problems getting it accepted for publication. I submitted it to The New England Journal of Medicine as an unsolicited editorial opinion or special article, and, specifically, it went to the desk of Marcia Angell, M.D., Executive Editor. Apparently, it remained on her desk for approximately six weeks. Within that time I had attempted to call the Journal office and requested information as to the disposition of that manuscript. Finally, during the sixth week and after the fifth phone call I succeeded in talking to Dr. Angell about the manuscript. She had not sent it out for review and she had rejected it. The conversation went like this:

Angell: If facts are misstated they don't necessarily have or those misstatements don't necessarily have any implications for an argument that involves a value judgement as the abortion argument does - and we are just not going to publish something on this issue that really using facts or not using facts or correcting facts or putting facts in a different perspective . . .

Me: You are an M.D.?

Angell: Yes

Me: Do you believe in the biological basis for the practice of medicine?

Angell: What are you talking about?

Me: If a surgeon intervenes in a uterus to remove an embryo or a fetus it seems to me that surgeon ought to know whether or not whatever is being removed is alive, and whatever . . .

Angell: (talkover) Why?

Me: . . . whatever is being removed whether or not it is human!

Angell: Why? Why does he have to know that?

Me: If you want to question that - why wouldn't you want to question elements in the Hippocratic Oath . . . for example, do no harm?

Angell: I would!

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