There is no such thing as a pre-embryo

Howard W. Jones, Jr., M.D has written an editorial in Fertility and Sterility [2002.77:658-659] entitled: “What is an embryo?” It is an outrageous effrontery to the science of Human Embryology.

Jones manipulates and parses the language of this science into a very strange entanglement of meaning. This is the Jones who organized The Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine, Norfolk, Virginia. Their current aim is to support therapeutic cloning of human embryos in order to acquire “stem cells”.

Jones does not cite a single source from Human Embryology to back up his claims. This is in concert with the corruption of Human Embryology which has been taking place for the past 30 years. The Journal of Fertility & Sterility has been instrumental in the revision of the facts concerning Human Embryology. This is manifest by their embracing the false term “pre-embryo” invented by Clifford Grobstein in 1979, the endorsement of this term by the Ethics Committee of Fertility and Sterility in 1986, of which Grobstein was a member, and its use by Jones in his present editorial. NO human embryologist endorses or uses this discredited and fraudulent term, and it is not to be found in a single textbook of Human Embryology. In fact, the Nomenclature Committee of the American Association of Anatomists recently rejected the terms: “pre-embryo,” “preembryonic” and “individuation” for inclusion in Terminologia Embryologica, the official lexicon of scientific terminology.

Jones infers that prior to implantation an embryo does not exist; and, he cites a medical dictionary source for support. The inference is that pregnancy does not occur prior to implantation, and this canard has often been repeated by revisionists. The important information is what human embryologists say. Carlson in his text of Human Embryology and Developmental Biology [1994] states in his opening sentence: “Human pregnancy begins with the fusion of sperm and egg.” This is because the concern of Human Embryology is the embryo and its development no matter where it is. Prior to implantation the embryo is developing in the fallopian tubes, ectopically, or even in a Petri dish. This is what medical students have always been taught. Is Jones now saying that what we have been teaching, at least for half a century, is now wrong? There are so many errors in Jones’ treatise it would take extensive discussion to correct them. He justifies using the much vaunted (so-called) “stem cells” from early embryos by claiming they are obtained from a “non-person,” the “pre-embryo”! Tell me this is not an arbitrary judgement. It certainly is not science.

Jones admits to the existence of a continuum, but then dismisses the integrity of this fact by stating:

“Nevertheless, there are milestones, i.e., clear marker events, which conveniently segment various stages of development.” First of all, understand that biological (embryological) development does not cease at birth. Therefore, the so-called marker events, invented by Jones, continue, for example, to the convenience of one Peter Singer, occupying an endowed chair of Bioethics at Princeton University. He advocates infanticide at the will of the parents (who in the case of one or no parents?) well after birth based on his interpretation that “sentience” (self awareness), a concept born out of psychology, not science, is not present until at least 3 months, post – birth, or longer!

Jones cites several “characteristics” occurring during early development, which he identifies as a “turbulent period”! He uses these “characteristics” to diminish the moral value of the embryo. For example, he claims “large numbers of abnormalities occur,” and that “at least two-thirds of the products of oocyte and sperm fusion are in some way defective.” Claims of this sort come from small numbers in flushing studies, or from spontaneous abortions. If from the latter, one would expect to find chromosomal defects. But, aside from that, so what? Such a result says absolutely nothing about those zygotes which implant normally, develop normally and are born normally.

An endorsement for this, recently came from an exchange between two members of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics about this very subject. James Wilson asked the following question: “Does it make a difference that retrospectively we all came from fertilized eggs, but, prospectively the chances of a fertilized egg even becoming a fetus, much less a child, are very, very small?” William Hurlbut replied: “Well, for example, death at one year old would not change the intrinsic value of a one year old, would it?” Wilson answered: “No, it certainly would not.”

Jones also claims that the “individual” is not determined prior to 14 days post-fertilization. That is, up to 14 days, p.f., the embryo can split to form identical twins. He infers that if the “individual” (meaning one person) is not there, the human being ,or even life, is not there. This kind of claim has been made for a long, long time. The answers to it are: 1. No one knows if the capability for splitting into two or three or four, etc., “individuals” exists in every embryo. 2. Whenever this claim is made, it never includes the fact that only 0.22% of all live births are monozygotic twins. What about the 99.73% of the rest of us? Are we determined for singleness before the 14th day? NO ONE KNOWS. 3. But, of all of the monozygotic twinning that takes place, we know retrospectively from examination of the placentae that splitting of the early embryo during the 2 or 4 cell stage occurs in one-third of the cases. Does this mean that determination occurs at that time? NO ONE KNOWS.

Jones’ scheme is purely arbitrary. It is just such a declaration which provided the justification for Adolph Hitler’s extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, the mentally retarded, and many others, in the abattoirs of Nazi medicine.

Let’s look at the rationale of Jones in another way. During development of the gut, at about 5 weeks post-fertilization, the primary gut loop forms. There is not enough room within the body of the embryo to accommodate it. Hence, it herniates into the stem of the umbilical cord, continues to develop there, until about the 7th week when it retreats into an enlarged embryonic body. During that time of herniation, since part of the gut is outside the body of the embryo, is that body really an embryo?

Another example: the developmental event of growth in the long bones ceases with closure of the growth plates at about 25 years of age. By the logic of Jones this would be a “marker event” justifying a new moral value of the human being!

Jones’ confusion of terms reflects his profound lack of knowledge of Human Embryology. The fact is the terminology of human development is significant only in the taxonomic sense. It allows human embryologists to talk to one another, and to some obstetricians and, perhaps, gynecologists. This is because of the continuum. We exist in a continuum of life during which all of the biological characteristics of life change: size, form, function, content, appearance, etc., and they keep changing until death.

Jones applies moral relevance arbitrarily to any time of development (read: life). Is it his moral relevance?

Yes, there are marker events all throughout life, if one wishes to invoke personal arbitrary observations. If humans, at any time of their life, suddenly experience changes in one or more of their characteristics would that be a moral event to justify euthanasia?

C. Ward Kischer, Ph.D. is professor emeritus of anatomy (specialty in Human Embryology) at the University of Arizona, College of Medicine, Tucson, Arizona 85724. He is the Chairman of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission.