When Does Human Life Begin? The Final Answer
A human embryologist speaks out about socio-legal issues involving the human embryo.

The Wrong Scientists Are Talking About The Human Embryo

None of the panels commissioned by President Clinton or President Bush have ever included a human embryologist. Recently, two different scientists, each of whom indirectly claimed to be a human embryologist, but who are not, testified before the President's Council on Bioethics. The fact is that no human embryologist has ever been invited to testify before any Presidential Council or Commission.

Lee Silver, Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, authored an article published by the Washington Post on August 19, 2001, entitled: "Watch What You Are Calling An Embryo". He declared that the human embryo is not really a human life, that "embryo" and "life" have several meanings.

Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Neuroscience at Dartmouth College, and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, authored an article published by the New York Times on April 25th, 2002, entitled: "Zygotes and People Aren't Quite The Same." He stated that the "initiation of life" by cloning is "a matter of religion and ethics", not of biology (or Human Embryology). He refers to the early human embryo as "a clump of cells", and, as "the size of a dot on [the letter] i". Thus, we now see the value of a human life reduced according to size! Does this mean that small people are less significant, or less human, than big people?

Mary Hendrix, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Iowa, testified before Senator Harkins Committee on 18 July, 2001, endorsing the use of "spare" embryos and therapeutic human embryo clones for sources of stem cells for research. She said: "Embryonic stem cells of the inner cell mass cannot form a human being, not even when implanted into a woman's womb". She is wrong and in conflict with every textbook of Human Embryology and with the factual evidence known from in-vitro fertilization laboratories. But, what do these Senators know. They listen to scientists who are not human embryologists, create their own websites containing false information with a glossary of inaccurate definitions about human development, without ever consulting the facts of Human Embryology.

The media is complicit with such revisions of the truth of Human Embryology, as there has yet to be an article published in the mainstream media by a human embryologist revealing the truth of Human Embryology and how wrong these non - human embryologists have been.

The Preembryo

In 1979 Clifford Grobstein, a frog embryologist, invented the term "preembryo" in his publication in Scientific American entitled: "External Human Fertilization"7. He boldly admitted that this term was conceived in order to reduce "the status" of the early human embryo. At this time the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joseph Califano, Jr., had publicly called for an evaluation of the early human embryo because of the proliferation of in-vitro fertilization clinics and laboratories and he was worried about the moral status of what was essentially experimentation on the early human being.

Therefore, Grobstein accommodated this concern by presenting the term "preembryo" and declaring it a "pre-person". His justification for these terms was predicated on false Human Embryology. In the same article Grobstein also invented the term "individuation", and declared that because the early human embryo could divide into two (or more) "individuals" (identical twins - or what we call monozygotic twins [MZ]) prior to 14 days post-fertilization that "individuation" had not occurred. Therefore, his reasoning was that because the "individual" was not present, ergo, the human being, or as he put it, the "person" was not present. From this tortuous reasoning has come the belief by some that not even a human life is present prior to 14 days. The questioning of the arbitrary term "person" (or "personhood") is never specified to be solely a legal interpretation, but left to one's imagination that somehow the biological inference is in question.

Grobstein's invention is still being used and published widely even today by many, pols, pundits and even many scientists.

First of all, those who devalue the early human embryo by Grobstein's logic never comment on what actually takes place in Human Embryology, which is that MZ twinning occurs in only 0.22% of all live births. The likelihood, then, is that 99.78% of the rest of us are, in fact, "individuated"! Whereas Grobstein applied his concept to all human embryos, it is simply not true.

The terms "preembryo" and "individuation" 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 textbook of Human Embryology.

Marker Events

Howard Jones, Jr. representing the Jones Institute of Reproductive Medicine authored an editorial in the Journal of Fertility & Sterility, in April, 2002, entitled: "What Is An Embryo"8. He cited "marker events" as validating the "preembryo" , and which reduced the "value" of the early human embryo and then indicated that "individuation" was the marker event, prior to which should be the acquisition of so-called stem cells for research.

He also cited as another "marker event" the rare occasion of a "hydatidiform mole". This is a genetic defect in which the embryo does not develop. He states that since it could not be predicted when this rare and bizarre anomaly would ever be present, then, according to his logic, a normal pregnancy with a normal embryo could also not be predicted. Therefore, one would have to wait a time, after which the "mole" would not be known to occur in order to declare a normal presentation for the "human being". Again, the logic is tortuous and not worthy of common sense reasoning.

If the reasoning by Jones were in the least way acceptable then one would have to conclude that all of life has so-called "marker events", which then could be used in any capricious and arbitrary way. For example, the thymus gland, so instrumental in providing immunity for the human being, disappears in most adults. Would the time of its disappearance mark the end of value for that person? Another example: growth in the long bones ends at about 25 years of age with closure of the "growth plates". Would this also be a marker event arbitrarily devaluing the human being?

Cloning and Stem Cell Research

Is a clone a human life?

In order to answer this question we first must examine what cloning is, its history, what it produces and what is intended for its use.

The word clone comes from the Greek - Klon, which means twig or branch. The implication is self evident. As the term has been used and is used today, the common interpretation is that a clone is "an exact copy". This is not exactly true, for if a nucleus from a donor cell, or the chromosomes therein, or its intact DNA, is placed into a host oocyte, in which the nucleus has been removed, and stimulated to divide and develop normally, then, in theory, everything in the donor would be duplicated [in theory!]; but one would also be contending with mitochondrial DNA (that within the little organelles called mitochondria found within the cytoplasm of the host cell), which would be different from the donor organism from which the nucleus had been obtained. So, "exact copy" is not wholly true.

The above describes "somatic cell nuclear transfer" or SCNT. But there are other means of cloning, for example, the separation of the cells of the early human embryo, which occurs naturally in 0.22% of all live births and results in identical twins. The fact that this occurs early in development and in the blastocyst ICM cells, reflects a quality of "totipotentiality" of the cells of the early human embryo; that is, each cell is able to form the complete organism.

The cloning of "Dolly" begs the question as to the value of such a procedure. Recently, in February, 2003, Dolly was put to sleep because she suffered from a series of ailments. Whether her infirmaties were the result of being cloned or arose from other sources has not been determined. However, Dolly was cloned through SCNT of a nucleus from an adult cell which had been in culture and which had been chemically "guided" in culture to a specific part of the cell cycle. At that point it was assumed to have been returned to a quasi-pristine state, as in the early embryological state. But, no evidence has ever been presented to prove this, as yet. Theories abound; for example, the DNA is said to have been demethylated. But, is that all that is required. I think not. After all, Dolly was only one success out of 277 trials!

Perhaps in order to determine if a clone is a human, we should ask: was Dolly a sheep? If Dolly walked like a sheep, sounded like a sheep and looked like a sheep, then it must have been a sheep. Which is to say, it began its life as a SCNT and became a sheep.

Although SCNT is a form of asexual reproduction, once the transfer is made and a stimulus applied to effect the first cell division, that is the moment equivalent to fertilization. So, yes, a human clone is a human being. Even with the prospect of being flawed, as was suspected of Dolly.

There is another aspect to cloning currently being legislated by the U.S. Congress. That is the issue of "therapeutic cloning" v. "reproductive cloning". Proponents of stem cell research favor the former but publicly are against the latter. One of the major problems they fail to address is the likelihood that the cells of the clone may carry lethal genes or be prone to anomalous development, as was the suspicion about Dolly. If advocates for therapeutic cloning had only looked at the original SCNT cloning experiments done by Robert Briggs and Tom King, in 1952, at the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, with donor embryonic nuclei, they would have discovered that the data from those experiments demonstrated many early deaths (as happened in the Scottish experiments) and many defects of development9. The advocates also claim the likelihood of many beneficial therapies derived from obtaining the stem cells from human clones, but almost never address the fact that human beings are being created, and killed, in order to get the stem cells.

But, one person did just that, and he is a past president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), Robert Rich. He said: "The creation of a human being by performing nuclear transplantation and then implanting that clone into a woman's womb is morally wrong" (my emphasis). Rich is in favor of therapeutic cloning, but admits that the same process is used for both "therapeutic" or "reproductive" cloning.

The Beginning of Human Life

It is quite clear that what was known more than 100 years ago, even intuitively before that, is that the fusion of sperm and oocyte begins the life of the new individual human being. In Human Embryology the terms understood to be integral in the common sense language are: human, being, person, individual, human being, life and human life. Unfortunately, every one of those terms has been parsed and corrupted to mean something it is not.

For example, we have already examined the corruption of the term individual into individuation, but explained how this corruption is seriously flawed. But, there has been another problem created; that is: when the early embryo splits, does the soul also split? And, if until that time there has been no soul, how could there be a person?

First of all, this is a question not for science, but for theology or religion. The science is there and has been there for about 150 years. In fact, it ought to be clear by now that when human life begins has no relationship to religion at all! Sherlock Holmes said it best when addressing Dr. Watson: "It's elementary my dear Watson".

What Is The Future For Human Life?

Scientists are going to continue to manipulate life and its elements, virtually all under the guise of beneficial therapies. Most of them fall under the aegis of genetic engineering. There have been and are proposals for gene selection, gene deletion, gene stimulation and gene insertion. In fact, the first gene therapy was performed in 1990 on a 4 year old with an inherited immune disorder; and, in 1999 Jesse Gelsinger underwent a gene therapy experiment at the University of Pennsylvania. He died.

A chimera is an organism composed of chromosomes from two different organisms. Already there is a human - animal chimera in the form of the SCID mouse10. This mouse is an animal born, normally, without an immune system. Hence, it is called SCID for severe combined immunodeficiency. But, this mouse received a transplant of immune tissue from a human fetus. Since the mouse had no immune system the transplant would not normally be rejected.

Are transplants from animal to human likely? They certainly have been proposed and discussed in scientific circles, as have been human - human chimeras. These situations will call for bioethical assessment; the science being involved is clear that what we normally agree to be life is being manipulated. This has caused the bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, to state: will these forms be a human life or "a genetically misprogrammed embryo, a flawed human being or simply a non-properly formed non-embryo".

More caution is clearly indicated. In Mary Shelley's ghost novel, Frankenstein said: "I had worked hard for nearly two years for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body". But when he witnessed the first signs of life in his creation: "the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart"11.


1 Kischer, C. W. 2001. Why Hatch is wrong on human life. Human Events, July 16th. [Back]

2 Carlson, Bruce. 1994. Human Embryology, p.1. Churchill - Livingston, New York. [Back]

3 Rosenfeld, Albert. 1969. Second Genesis. The coming control of life. p. 108. Prentice-Hall. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. [Back]

4 Syllabus: Roe et al. v. Wade, District Attorney of Dallas County. Supreme Court of The United States. No. 70 - 18. Decided January 22nd, 1973. [Back]

5 William L. Webster et al. v. Reproductive Health Services et al. Amici Curiae Brief of 167 Distinguished Scientists and Physicians Including 11 Nobel Laureates in Support of Appellaes. October, 1988. Reviewed by Susan Solomon, Graduate Student, University of Arizona College of Medicine. Personal Communication. [Back]

6 Stenberg, Attorney General of Nebraska et al. v. Carhart. Supreme Court of The United States. No. 99 - 830. Decided June 28th, 2000. Those using the phrase "potential human life" included Justice Breyer, writing for the majority of 5 with affirmations by Justices Stevens, O'connor, Souter and Ginsburg. Dissenting opinions of Justices Kennedy and Thomas also used the phrase. [Back]

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

8 Jones, Howard, Jr. 2002. What Is An Embryo? Fertility & Sterility, 77:658-659. [Back]

9 King, T.J. and R. Briggs. 1952. Transplantation of living nuclei from blastula cells into enucleated frog eggs. Proc. Nat'l. Acad. Sciences. May, p. 38. [Back]

10 Jeffrey, T. P. 2001. NIH Mass Produces 'Human' Mouse. Human Events. October 12th, pp. 1-9. [Back]

11 Shelley, Mary. 1818. Frankenstein. Reprinted by Bantam Books, 1981, p.42. [Back]

(NB, This article was summarily rejected by The Atlantic Monthly.)

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