Brief Reflections: How Human Embryology has been Co-opted by Developmental Biology

C. Ward Kischer
Presented in a speech before the
Tucson Catholic Physician's Guild,
February 16, 2016.
Reproduced with Permission

It used to be that only the experts in a particular field would be called upon when the specific objective empirical facts involving their field were at issue. Otherwise what you get are simply speculations, half-truths or even lies. As a human embryologist I have been mystified by the distortions of human embryology, especially by non-scientists, pols and pundits. Especially, I have been astonished by the comments in the major media by lawyers, clerics and those with virtually no knowdege of human embryology. It all started long ago.

In 1973 Roe v. Wade was adjudicated by the Supreme Court. Attorney Robert Flowers argued on behalf of the unborn, but was ill prepared. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion for the court and said: "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary at this point in man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."

Not a word was said about Human Embryology, even though at that time there were several human embryologists available to testify, e.g. Bradley Patten and Leslie Arey . Thus began the rewriting and transformation, according to political correctness, of Human Embryology to Developmental Biology.

The biggest insult was committed by a frog biologist, Clifford Grobstein [now deceased] and rapidly embraced by Jesuit theologian Richard McCormick [now deceased]. In 1979 Grobstein introduced the term "preembryo" in an article in Scientific American. He concluded that the preembryo was a preperson, prehuman, and some pols and pundits claimed it was even prelife. The literature about human embryology became saturated with the term preembryo. Keith Moore, a prolific writer of Anatomy textbooks, even included the term in his fifth edition of "The Developing Human". Ronan O'Rahilly notes in his text "Human Embryology and Teratology" that the term is ill-defined and inaccurate. He does not use the term. Dr. Moore was the only author to use the term. I wrote to Dr. Moore and asked him to remove the term. He replied that I was correct and he was wrong. He removed the term in the next printing of his fifth edition. No human embryologist accepts the term preembryo and it is not included in the official lexicon of anatomical nomenclature.

The insults continued via 1989 in the Webster case in which an amicus curiae brief was presented with 167 names of "distinguished scientists and Nobel laureates endorsing the conclusion that the beginning of life could not be determined. We tracked the list of signees using all available references and sources but could find only 110 names. We found no one on the list to be a human embryologist.

I wrote a rebuttal to Grobstein's invention of preembryo. It was accepted for publication by the Linacre Quarterly, "The big lie in Human Embryology. The case of the preembryo." 64: 53-61, 1997. That journal awarded me its annual writing award for 1997 for that article.

Because the term preembryo was used in a textbook that the students used as reference, I put copies of my article in some of their mailboxes. I handed out some to others personally. Not long after that I was called into the office of my Department Head. As soon as I sat down he started by saying he had been talking to security and wanted to know if I could be arrested. Clearly he was agitated and hostile. He said the mailboxes were the private property of the students. But, I pointed out they were out in the open with no cover on them, and, therefore, no lock. He also said he had been talking to several lawyers and he wanted to know if I could be sued. I reminded him that my article was scientific and was correcting misinformation. But it did not seem he was listening. So, I got up, said I had heard enough and left his office. No student ever came to me. It was clear that a small number of prochoice students, maybe two or three, had gone to the Department Head and complained. He did not defend me in any way, Rather,he threatened me with arrest, or to be sued by lawyers. In short, he caved. I never heard any more about it.

The term "Potential Human Life" was born in Roe v. Wade. and continues to be used to this day. Advocates for this concept are Bill O'Reilly of Fox News [The O'Reilly Factor] and Megyn Kelly, also of Fox News [The Kelly File]. Neither of them have ever said when "potential" ends.

Several Commissions were formed in the 1980s and 1990s by Presidents Clinton and Bush for the considerations of the morality of using human embryos in several methods of medical research. No human embryologist was ever appointed to any of these commissions, and, no human embryologist was ever called to testify, despite many appeals to their Chairmen.

A review of several medical dictionaries over the past several decades show equivocal definitions of conception. Some identify conception occurring at fertilization after release of the oocyte from the ovary. Others define conception at the time of implantation in the uterus. A way around this impasse was suggested by Dr. A.S. Parkes of Cambridge in 1969: "Equate conception with the time of implantation." Unfortunately, pundits and pols, along with some developmental biologists, accepted this misinformation, and it is still present in the literature today. In fact, "conception" is now falsely defined as beginning at implantation in dozens of state laws across the country. Parkes appears to have been a reproductive physiologist.

The facts are that conception occurs normally in the upper third of the fallopian tube then travels towards the body of the uterus where the embryo is implanted. The continuum of life is activated by first contact, oocyte plasma membrane with the sperm plasma membrane and continues as a fait accompli . Normally, it takes 5 to 6 days to reach the implantation area of the uterus. All the while the embryo is developing.

Many writers, principally pols and pundits, attempt to make their remarks sound legitimate by claiming some scientific aspect. But, the long acknowledged scientific truth of human embryology, instituted back in 1942 in the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development and updated every year since then says the following:

At any point along the continuum of life, from conception to death, whenever that may occur, there is a whole, integrated human life. This is because all of the characteristics of life are changing over time, albeit at different rates at different times: content, size, function, appearance, etc. That is the science.

This is a difficult concept for many humans to accept, given the nature of man. Perhaps the most difficult of man's traits is that of arrogance, the destructive aspects of which are with us daily.