The 'Pre-Embryo' Question

John B. Shea
October 30, 2004
Reproduced with Permission
Catholic Insight

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." -Through The Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll

In 1979, Clifford Grobstein, a frog embryologist, coined the word "pre-embryo."1 He subsequently admitted that the word was conceived in order to reduce the "status" of the early human embryo, whom he declared to be a "pre-person."2 He held that since identical twins may occur up to fourteen days after fertilization, only a "genetic individual" is present, not a "developmental individual", and that therefore an embryo, a "person", is not present.3 This notion of a "pre-embryo" was also supported in 1979 by the bioethics writings of Jesuit theologian, Richard McCormick, in his work with the Ethics Advisory Board to the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare.4

"The terms 'pre-embryo' and 'individuality' have been totally discredited, not only by all Human Embryologists, but have also been rejected by the Nomenclature Committee of the American Association of Anatomists for inclusion in the official lexicon of Anatomical Terminology, Terminologia Embryologica. These terms are not used in any official text book of Human Embryology."5 They are also not used in the Carnegie Stages of Human Early Development. The scientific evidence indicates that from the moment when the sperm makes contact with the oocyte (ovum), human development is an integrated continuum in which one stage follows another throughout all of life until death, and therefore that the developing human being is both a 'genetic' and a 'developmental' individual from the first moment of its existence.

Scientific Facts

It was first demonstrated in 1980 by Jean Smith of Queen's College, Flushing, New York, that the human body has a shape from the moment of fertilization. This was confirmed by Richard Gardner, an embryologist at Oxford University, U.K., in 2002. Which side of the microscopic embryo will form the back and head are not left to later development as has been believed by embryologists, but are determined in the minutes and hours after the sperm and egg unite to form a new human being. The "newly fertilized egg has a definite top - bottom axis that sets up the equivalent axis in the future embryo." The early mammalian embryo is no longer a "featureless ball of cells."6

At the first cell division of the embryo an immuno-suppressant is produced to prevent rejection of the embryo by the mother. Communication between the cells of the embryo is established which facilitates "movement of materials, providing signals or direction to a cell or cells, prompting them to divide or not divide ... to respond in ways which can direct their destiny."7 The cells of the embryo function in distinct ways from the single cell stage on, e.g. the cells undergo 'compaction' (they change in shape and align themselves tightly against each other) at the eight - ten cell stage on the fourth day.8 Junctions between the embryo cells begin at the three cell stage on the third day.9

Totipotency is the ability of a cell to regenerate a whole new organism, an identical twin. Such twinning usually occurs before the four to eight cell stage of embryonic development, but can occur up to two and a half weeks after the zygote is formed. All cells of the early human embryo are totipotent until shortly after the blastocyst stage including the cells of the inner cell mass and even the primitive germ-line cells. This means that if these cells are separated from the embryo, they may give rise to an identical twin by a process called 'regulation.'

Some have argued that not all the genetic information necessary for becoming an embryo is to be found in the zygote, and that therefore it must come as a result of the interaction between the molecules produced by the zygote and those of the mother.10 This statement is not supported by scientific evidence. What the embryo acquires during gestation is warmth, hydration, nutrition, and a secure environment. The use of specific molecules from the mother is determined by the genetic program of the embryo. These molecules are used as a source of energy, and for metabolism. The somatic structure of an organism may be altered by its activity or by the environment. For example, exercise builds muscle; mental stimulation alters the structure of the brain; bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, which is due to processes programmed in the bacterium.

At a basic biological level, information coded in plant genes 'instructs' them to capture, transduce, store, and utilize the photon energy from the sun to produce work. An analogous process of energy retrieval exists in the animal cell. The energy that the zygote derives from nutrition is not the source of, and must not be confused with, functional prescriptive information and instruction. The latter is a form of algorithmic programming coded in the genes. This genomic program acting through ribosomal mechanisms determines which proteins and enzymes will be formed which in turn determine which tissues and organs will be developed. In genetics, this is called a "cascade effect".

The Zygote and Information Theory

Erwin Schrodinger, the famous theoretical physicist, has stated that "A living organism has the astonishing gift of concentrating a stream of order onto itself and thus escaping the decay into atomic chaos."11 This order however, is not obtained from the energy or order derived from ingested nutrients or water. Its source is rather the program of prescriptive functional information and instruction coded in the genome of the zygote. This information dictates all the biochemical, cellular, tissue and organ functions of the human body. All the trillions of coordinated physical-chemical interactions which occur throughout the living human body every second, whether in a zygote or in an adult whose body contains 50 to 100 trillion cells, have their ultimate source of integration, unity, and coordination in the genetic code of the original single cell zygote. The ultimate source of this information is unknown.

Information theory concerns itself with mathematical laws governing systems designed to communicate or manipulate information. It deals with data transmission, reception, and noise reduction processing without regard for the meaning of the 'information' itself. Energy alone has never produced such information, and should not be confused with it. Information is 'carried' by the chemistry of the cell just as it is carried by the printed word, but is distinct from it. In the human being, all the information necessary for development is already coded in the DNA of the zygote. This code, or 'software', is recorded in a one dimensional sequence of amino acids which determines a three dimensional structure of proteins, which in turn accelerate biochemical reactions essential to life.

In all of nature there is no mechanism known by which genetic coding is achieved. There does not appear to be any scientific evidence that new prescriptive information or instruction is provided to the embryo at the time when, some claim, that a human individual comes into being, that is approximately two weeks after the zygote is first formed. The fact is that at the moment that the zygote comes into existence, all of the genetic information necessary to its continued being and development, and the mechanisms necessary to transmit that information over the lifetime of the human being, are both present. These scientific phenomena show that the cells of the early embryo (stem cells) function as parts of a self-integrating unified whole, and that the embryo is a substantial unity.

The Embryo - Word Games

Despite the mounting scientific evidence against its use, the term "pre-embryo" has been widely accepted and used for the past 25 years. Those who have used it often have a conflict of interest, which may affect their judgment in the matter. They include pharmaceutical companies, which make 'birth control' pills, which can cause abortion by preventing implantation of an embryo in the uterus; the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, many of whose members prescribe 'birth control' pills; physicians who practice in vitro fertilization and those who do research using in vitro fertilized and cloned embryos. It is not without significance, also, that none of the panels commissioned by President Clinton and President Bush have ever included a person qualified in Human Embryology.12 Those who want to feel free to abort the embryo or use it for research, have recently taken to using many new-fangled terms as substitutes for both 'embryo' and 'clone'. The reason they do so is that many members of the public are aware that the immediate product of reproduction is a 'human being' or a 'human individual'. Recently, even the term 'pre-embryo' has fallen into disfavor for the same reason. Even when it is admitted that the embryo is a 'human being' some insist that it is not a 'person'. They call it instead, a 'genetic individual', a 'cell', a 'ball of cells', an 'activated oocyte', or a 'reconstructed oocyte'. Other recent innovations name this 'ball of cells', once it implants in the uterus, a 'fetus', and named pregnancy, 'the period of time from implantation until delivery.' Thus the word 'embryo' is to be banished from memory.13,14,15 Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, went so far as to say that the embryo is just "totipotent cells" until it is implanted and attains adulthood!16

From the perspective of morality, it is of great importance to note that even if one were to grant, if only for the sake of argument, the hypothesis that there is no human individual in existence before fourteen days after the zygote is formed, an act of killing the conceptus before fourteen days would not be morally justifiable. Mauro Cozzoli, a professor of moral theology at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome, writing about the status of the embryo, has stated, "The uncertainty with regard to whether we are dealing with a human individual is not an abstract doubt, regarding a theory, a principle, or doctrinal position (dubium iuris); it is a doubt about a fact concerning the life of a human being, here and now (dubium facti). As such, it creates the same obligations as certainty ... Therefore, in the case of doubt as to whether the embryo is already a person, given that he will certainly become one, it is necessary to allow him to become the person that he may already be. This is a moral obligation."17

Cloning - Word Games

Human embryos can be the product of asexual reproductive processes called 'cloning', one of many human genetic engineering reproductive techniques. Cloning has been spuriously categorized by researchers as 'reproductive' and 'non reproductive.' 'Reproductive' cloning is described by them as that which is intended to produce a born baby. The researchers therefore falsely claim that research on the embryo or fetus up to the moment of birth is morally acceptable. They also claim that they may still categorize the cloning as 'non reproductive' since they do not intend the cloned embryo to be born. 'Non reproductive' cloning has been euphemistically called 'therapeutic cloning' by researchers despite the obvious fact that it is far from therapeutic for the embryo, which is killed when its stem cells are removed. It is of interest to note that the California Cloning Report states that cloning is 'non reproductive cloning', if it is used only to create 'pre-embryos' as a source of stem cells for research.18

Some researchers have stopped using the term 'clone', which they fear is disturbing to the public. They now call it 'somatic cell nuclear transfer', 'nuclear transplantation', 'stem cell research', or some other bland sounding substitute.19 Leonard Zon, president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, (ISSCR), has urged embryonic stem cell researchers to stop using the term 'cloning' to describe the creation of human embryos for research. He said that "The negative connotation of the commercial term 'therapeutic cloning' make(s) a change in terminology necessary. Nuclear transfer should be used instead of 'therapeutic cloning'. If we use these terms consistently, the public, journals, newspapers and magazines will follow our lead and use adequate terminology."20 In addition, cloning is narrowly defined as just 'somatic cell nuclear transfer', allowing the many other cloning techniques to escape the notice of the public and to be permitted by the law. For example, a bill to ban human cloning, which defined it only in terms of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), would permit all other human cloning techniques. Jamie Grifo, a leading infertility researcher at New York University, stated that researchers want a "narrow definition" of SCNT because they want to use a range of cloning techniques as "infertility treatments."21 In all of these instances, people in influential positions have substituted fiction for fact. One would need to know their motivation in order to distinguish ignorance from fraud.

It is well known that tissues derived from in vitro fertilized embryos are likely to be rejected by the body of a patient on whom they are used as therapy. Never has there been a recorded clinical success with such therapy. Tissues from cloned embryos are well known to be genetically highly abnormal and likely to produce tumors, and they too can cause rejection reactions because of the genetic differences due to mitochondrial DNA.22 Nevertheless, researchers still push for the legalization of research on human embryos produced by both sexual and asexual techniques.

Why? Researchers apparently do not want to be inhibited in any way from doing what they want in their research projects. They assume that a 'technological imperative' allows them to do so. It is admitted that nuclear transfer cloning to customize a tissue match of a person needing cells for therapy is expensive and insufficient. It is claimed however, that this kind of cloning, though unsuitable for therapeutic purposes, would be very useful in doing research into complex diseases, such as hypertension, arthritis and Alzheimer's.23 The aim is to produce microscopic versions of hypertensive, arthritic and Alzheimer's patients to be designated for research purposes only. The interests of pharmaceutical companies would include the investigation of the effectiveness of drugs in the treatment of such diseases.

The public, having already accepted the weeding out of defective embryos during in vitro fertilization, has now turned its attention to improving the 'quality' of the embryo in the interest of athletic prowess. Many so-called 'trans-humanist' groups are now expressing their interest in accelerating the enhancement of human intelligence, emotions, perception, and abilities of all kinds. Welcome to the brave new world!

Catholic Church Teaching

Church teaching is summarized as follows:


Both the evidence of science and the teaching of the Catholic Church in regard to the embryo are clear. They also directly contradict the fictions of those scientists who are not specifically trained in human embryology and have adopted many erroneous ethical and moral principles which are in vogue today. The abuse of language indulged in by so many of our self-assigned scientific 'elites' is a reenactment of the role played by the Sophists who, as Plato remarked 2400 years ago, "fabricated a fictitious reality." These 'elites' act as apt pupils of the nihilist American philosopher Richard Rorty who, though he did not believe in objective moral truth, nonetheless held that "By the use of rhetoric, one can change one's desires into the truth."30 They also act in accord with the opinion of the American bioethicists, Paul Root Wolpe and Glenn McGee, who hold that "public policy debates are exercises in rhetoric where the first battle is often a struggle over definitions and where the winning side is usually the one most able to capture rhetorical primacy by having its definitions of the situation accepted as the taken-for-granted landscape on which the rest of the game must be staged."31


1 Grobstein, Clifford. 1979, External Human Fertilization. Scientific American, 240; 57-67. [Back]

2 C. Ward Kischer. When Does Human Life Begin? The Final Answer. 2003. [Back]

3 Ibid., and Richard McCormick S.J., "Who or what is the pre-embryo?" Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 1:1 (1991). [Back]

4 Ethics Advisory Board. Report and Conclusions: HEW Support of Research Involving Human In vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer, Washington, D.C.: United States Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare, p. 101. [Back]

5 See number 2 above. [Back]

6 Richard Gardner. Nature, 418, 14-15 (04 July, 2002) DOI: 10. 1038/4180a News Feature. [Back]

7 See number 2 above. [Back]

8 Nikas G. et al. Compaction and Surface Polarity in the Human Embryo in vitro. Biol. Reprod. 1996, Jul; 55 (1): 32-7. [Back]

9 Hardy K. et al. Expression of Intercellular Junctions During Preimplantation Development of the Human Embryo, Mol Hum Reprod. 1996, Aug; 2 (8): 621-32. [Back]

10 Carlos Bedate, Robert Cefalo. "The Zygote: To Be or Not to Be a Person", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 14 (6). 1989. p. 641-645. Thomas J. Bole 111, "Metaphysical Accounts of the Zygote as a Person and the Veto Power of Facts", Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 14, 1989: 647-653. [Back]

11 E. Schrodinger. What is Life? Cambridge University Press, 1967. [Back]

12 See number 2 above. [Back]

13 Congressional Testimony of Michael D. West, PhD. President and CEO, Advanced Cell Technology. Inc. (July 18, 2001). [Back]

14 Irving Weissman, M.D. "A message from the Director of the Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology, Medicine at Stanford." The Stanford Report, (Jan. 22, 2003). [Back]

15 United States Department of Health and Human Sciences. Office of Human Health Protection. Regulations. # 46.202 Definitions. [Back]

16 Dr. Varmus. NIH website, [Back]

17 The Human Embryo: Ethical and Normative Aspects. The Identity and Status of the Human Embryo. Proceedings of the Third Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Vatican City. Feb. 14 16, 1997. pp. 271 - 272, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 00120, Citta Del Vaticano, John Paul 11, 1990, in his address to the 1989 Working Group of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. [Back]

18 Report of the California Advisory Committee on Human Cloning, Jan. 11, 2002. Sacramento, CA. [Back]

19 National Academy of Science, Scientific and Medical Aspects of Human Reproductive Cloning, (2002). Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, p.33. [Back]

20 Steven Ertelt, "Doctors' Group Assails Stem Cell Research Backer's Cloning Statement." Oct.1, 2004. [Back]

21 Dr. Jamie Grifo, as quoted in Stephen Smith, "Cloning bans could have impact on infertility treatments". Jan. 9, 1998. [Back]

22 David Humphries et al. Abnormal gene expression in cloned mice derived from embryonic stem cell and cumulus cell nuclei. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. v. 99, n. 20, 16 Sept. 02. [Back]

23 Janet Rossant. "Cloning Hype or Hope", The politicization of stem cell research. Canadian Chemical News Oct. 2004. 13-14. [Back]

24 Pastoral Constitution. Gaudium et spes. no. 51. [Back]

25 Holy See. Charter of the Rights of the Family. No.4 [Back]


26 Pope Paul V1, Discourse to Participants in the Twenty-third National Congress of Italian Jurists. Dec. 9, 1972: AAS 64 (1972) 777. [Back]

27 Instruction on Bioethics, Donum vitae, 1.2. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Feb. 22, 1987. [Back]

28 United Nations. A/C. 6/59/INF/fifty-ninth session. Sixth Committee. Agendum Item 150. International convention against the reproduction cloning of human beings. Considerations by the Holy See on Human Cloning. [Back]

29 Vatican's Mission to the United Nations, "The Views of the Holy See on Human Cloning", Feb. 2003. [Back]

30 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Philosophical Papers. vol.1, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press (1991), 8-9. [Back]

31 Pragmatic Bioethics. Edited by Glenn McGee, second edition. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., London, England. [Back]