Letter to Jerome Lejeune Re Term “Pre-Embryo” (Aug. 1993)

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright August 8, 1993
Reproduced with Permission

Dr. Jerome Lejeune
31 Rue Galante
Paris 75005

Dear Dr. Lejeune:

First please allow me congratulate you on the excellent addresses which you delivered at the Humanae Vitae Conference in Omaha. I have heard you speak several times, and as always, your talk is both informative and inspirational!

With regard to the conversation we had there about the use of the term "pre-embryo" in two of the new embryology resources, I have enclosed several items pertaining immediately to this issue. Copies of the letters were sent to me by Dr. C. Ward Kischer, a professor of embryology for over 30 years, currently teaching at the University of Arizona School of Medicine. We were not acquainted until this spring, when both of our papers concerning the incorrect science in the "fetal personhood" debates appeared in the same issue of the Linacre Quarterly (I have enclosed both of those papers for your interest). I called Dr. Kischer concerning his paper, and we have been corresponding ever since. He is very pro-life, responding in particular as a concerned scientist, and dislikes getting into philosophical or theological "garble", as he refers to it. He is a very devout Lutheran, and seems to be quite sincere.

I have thus included: (1) a copy of the letters he wrote to Keith Moore concerning the new inclusion of the category of "pre-embryo" in his 5th edition of The Developing Human (to be sold this fall), as well as Moore's response to him; (2) my own letter to Moore which Kischer suggested that I write to give Moore some indication that there are others "out there" who are also aware of this issue; and (3) a copy of the table of contents from the 1989 edition (3rd) of Nomina Anatomica; Nomina Histologica; Nomina Embryologica, in which the "Pre-Embryonic Period" is separately classified as a legitimate stage in human embryogenesis. Dr. Moore is apparently the chairman of the international committee right now which makes such determinations.

Additionally, I have included (4) a page from The Gift of Life: Proceedings of a National Conference on the Vatican Instruction on Reproductive Ethics and Technology, published by the Pope Paul VI Institute Press, and sold several weeks ago at the Humanae Vitae conference. A footnote at the bottom of the first page of their reprint of Donum Vitae includes the use of the term "pre-embryo"! I do not know if the actual document uses that footnote itself, or if it was added by the editors. However, there is a very clear implication in that footnote that the "pre-embryo" is, indeed, a real stage in the development of a human being. I would think that this footnote is scientifically in error, and should never have been included in this document - much less published in connection with a Church conference.

I have also included (5) a copy of my resume (so that you might understand my background and concerns), as well as (6) a couple of my recent papers, and other items in which you might be interested.

As I mentioned to you in Omaha, I think that the appearance of the term "pre-embryo" in such well established scientific texts is more than problematic. I, alone, can certainly do very, very little to affect such decisions. My background is in biochemistry. I did do basic bench research at NIH for about 6 1/2 years and have a career research chemist appointment with them. I am short only a couple of courses in biology for my Ph.D. and passed my course in human genetics (with an A), but never finished the degree, even though I had already completed the research for it. And it has been several years since I have worked in the lab. My masters and doctoral degrees are now in philosophy. It must be experts such as yourself and Dr. Kischer who could do something within the scientific community to stop these moves on the part of other scientists to redefine (incorrectly) such critical scientific terms. There are, perhaps, other scientific terms which have similarly been incorrectly redefined (such as the other term I brought up to you and the researcher from Germany - i.e., the definition of "pregnancy" as "the product of conception from the time of implantation until the extraction or expulsion of the fetus". In fact, my next paper will be to address this definition which is used in the U.S. federal government's OPRR rules and regulations in research using human subjects (copy enclosed), as well as in the recent abortion document from Germany.)

I am trying to do what I can under the circumstances. I did spend a couple of years tracking down and checking out the science that I knew instinctively was incorrect (or misapplied) before daring to note it in my dissertation (the scars of which I am still bearing!). It was and still is difficult for me to understand how all of this incorrect science could have gone unnoticed or ignored by the scientific community for so many years. In 1991, just after I defended my dissertation, I attended a F.I.D.E.A. conference on research ethics at Georgetown - with the express purpose of confronting Clifford Grobstein who was scheduled to speak there. I could not believe that he would try to pass his "science" off to his own scientific peers - but indeed, he did. When I approached the microphone and presented him with a list of his inaccurate scientific claims, as compared with so many other scientific texts and recent journal articles, he responded that yes, I was correct - but that he was only "trying to be helpful"! Helpful to whom? Many scientists came up to me afterwards to agree with what I had said. When I asked them why they had not stood up and asked the same questions, they all - to a person - responded that they had "X" number of NIH grants to support their post docs and feared that they would loose them if they spoke out!

Even though much of the philosophy (or theology) that is used in the "fetal personhood" debates is just as historically incorrect or misinterpreted, the first papers which I wrote following my dissertation were focused mostly on the science. I am presently serializing them for the general public in two places: our parish Sunday bulletin, and the monthly newsletter of the Catholic Association of Scientists and Engineers, of which I am a member (copies enclosed). Hopefully I will be able to publish a general book this coming year on the same topic; and I have given a number of speeches to different sorts of groups on the issue as well. Finally, you have a copy of the amicus curiae brief on "fetal personhood" which I wrote this spring for the University Faculty For Life.

But this is hardly enough. It is incredible how scientifically illiterate and misinformed the general public is on this issue. Most of the audiences to whom I have spoken - Catholic and non-Catholic - have already bought into the incorrect science and philosophy which is used in the debates on "personhood". Indeed, this spring, when I was teaching in Romania, the papal nuncio and his monseignor asked me about this issue, and were actually quoting these same "scientific" statements from Haring and McCormick! He said that all the bishops in Romania had been sent their books on these bioethics subjects by the USCCB! Tris Englehardt has spent a good deal of time lecturing in China and throughout Asia lately, using the same "science". Quite a number of international conferences I have attended are also using this "science". It is already internationally recognized and concretized. It is now "the norm".

And most scientists are just as misinformed as the general public, and do not wish, of course, to get into either questioning the expertise of another fellow scientist, especially when they are not in the same field, or simply don't care. (I have also included my response to some skeptical scientists at a New Jersey college which Fr. Michael Mannion requested me to write).

Kischer, however, has been trying for quite some time to publish his corrections in the scientific literature, but the article (which was finally published in the Linacre Quarterly) had been rejected by over 19 different scientific journals - without peer review! I have also had an article on this science rejected by JAMA. There seems to be a deafening wall of silence from the scientific community - for over 20 years now. As Kischer notes in his article, if something is not done immediately, they will have succeeded in rewriting the basic facts of our own human development. Kischer and I will continue to try to do something about all of this - but we are only two lonely voices. I hope that there might be something which you or others whom you know can do.

Perhaps an international conference on the problem is in order! But it had better happen very quickly. Text books, national and international regulations and laws, university and medical school courses, computer programs, library card catalogues (e.g., the National Library of Medicine next to NIH plugs into "BioethicsLine", a computer program on bioethics made by LeRoy Walters of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown, and the bioethicist for NIH), etc., have been carrying this "science" for quite some time now - and that includes Catholic institutions. We even have a computer network here in the States on E-Mail, with an "abortion" bulletin board. People from all around the world get onto it and argue. If you are interested, I could send you some copies of these incredible "conversations", including one featuring Grobstein himself, articulating this false "science" he uses in his arguments for all the world to see, and he is portrayed by others on the line as such an international "expert". Others in that particular "conversation" included Lisa Cahill and Catholics for a Free Choice. It will take a monumental and rapid effort on the part of many to undo all of this misinformation which has had free rein for so many years.

Well, I hope this information can be helpful in some way. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call or write. Hope your summer was pleasant. Once again, thank you for your heroic and inspirational work. With best regards -


Dianne Nutwell Irving, M.A., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
History of Philosophy/Bioethics
5108 Randall Lane
Bethesda, MD 20816-1917

[Edited for format and clarity July 18, 2004]