Irving and Kischer Responses to Dr. Condic's "Science" in National Catholic Register Interview

C. Ward Kischer
January 6, 2010

Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D.
Former career appointed biologist/biochemist NCI/NIH, and
Professor of the history of philosophy, and of medical ethics

C. Ward Kischer, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology & Anatomy
University of Arizona, College of Medicine
Tucson, Arizona 85724
Reproduced with Permission

[Note: The following responses to Dr. Maureen Condic's "science" presented in her interview on "when human life begins" with the National Catholic Register were written independently, and sent to the NCR and related others. They are copied here as sent. Such overtly erroneous "science" could be used to "justify" human cloning, human embryonic stem cell research, human reproductive genetic engineering, the use of abortifacients - whether the early human embryo is sexually or asexually reproduced, in vivo or in vitro. Such erroneous "science" needs to be identified, especially for those with little or no scientific background. Dr. Condic's interview follows at the end. - D.N. I. and CWK]

Publisher and Editor in Chief
NC Register
Father Owen Kearns, LC

Dear Editor Kearns:

In the issue of the NC Register, dated December 20th - January 2nd, an article was posted dated December 14th, 2009 entitled: "When Human Life Begins". It was written by Sue Ellen Browder. She interviewed Dr. Maureen Condic, a faculty member at the University of Utah, School of Medicine.

I never cease to be amazed that when I see and read about this subject: "When Human Life Begins", the wrong people have been sought after for interviews and comments. Why is it that human embryologists are rarely those interviewed? Dr. Condic is not a human embryologist. In this particular article, she makes some profound errors and misstatements.

Dr. Condic says "the first human cell" is a zygote. This is incorrect. The term "zygote" identifies a cell formed about 24 hours after fertilization. It is important to use this term correctly because many events occur prior to 24 hours.

Dr. Condic states that the zygote "is not a new individual". Oh, yes it is. The analogy to a car is not useful. From the moment of first contact of fertilization, everything in that new, individual life is changing, until death, whenever that may occur. This involves all of the characteristics of life: size, form, content, function and appearance, etc. It's just that the rates of change vary, sometimes dramatically, to the extent that anyone might not be so appreciated. You can't say that about a car. Assigning relative values at any point is simply arbitrary and not scientifically grounded. Therefore, at any time point along the continuum of life there is a whole, integrated human life.

Dr. Condic states that defining pregnancy at implantation "makes perfect sense both medically and biologically". Wrong again! There are two basic reasons why defining pregnancy at implantation is nonsense. 1. Fertilization occurs, optimally, in the ampulla of the Fallopian tube [the upper third]. During the 5 to 6 days it takes for the embryo to arrive in the uterus, the mother is protecting and nurturing that embryo. 2. During that 5 to 6 days journey, the embryo is continuing to develop. Both of these activities are occurring during a pregnancy.

The idea that pregnancy begins at implantation of the embryo into the uterus was generated more than four decades ago. At that time there were concerns about the actions of chemical contraceptives. Albert Rosenfeld wrote in his book "Second Genesis" [1969], if chemical contraceptives prevent implantation of the embryo into the uterus, some may hold that constitutes abortion. "A way around this impasse has been suggested by Dr. A. S. Parkes of Cambridge: Equate conception with the time of implantation - a difference of only a few days".

The question of "person" and "personhood" are not within my expertise. I am a scientist. These are philosophical issues and, therefore, may be arbitrary. Yet, as a scientist I view a "person" as a human being, and an embryo as a human being from the first moment [first contact] of fertilization. It seems to me that the issue of what leads to fertilization is virtually never discussed: that is, sexual intercourse, which leads to pregnancy. It appears that some women want the pleasures of sexual intercourse without the attendant responsibility of a possible pregnancy. If human rights were to be considered for the embryo, perhaps some women would be more discriminating in their activities leading up to the assignment of rights for the new, individual human being.

With all good wishes,

C. Ward Kischer, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology & Anatomy
Specialty in Human Embryology
University of Arizona, College of Medicine
Tucson, Arizona 85724

[The following on-line comment was sent by Dr. Irving directly from the "comment" webpage for Dr. Condic's interview with the National Catholic Register]

I was astounded to read in a Catholic news website article so much scientific nonsense (Sue Ellin Browder's interview with Dr. Maureen Condic on "When Human Life Begins", Dec. 20, 2009, at: Where to begin?

(1) As Dr. Condic has been advised before, she can't claim both that the new human being begins at penetration of the oocyte, and also when the zygote forms. Those are two very different points in time. Since 1942 the internationally grounded Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development - the "gold standard" of human embryology - makes it perfectly clear that in SEXUAL human reproduction the new human being begins to exist at first contact of the sperm and oocyte ( If the zygote is claimed instead, that falsely justifies unethical research on the human embryo before the formation of the zygote - when most unethical genetic engineering, cloning, iPS research is performed.

(2) The very same international experts' website has always documented that normally a woman is pregnant when the new human being is formed at first contact of the sperm with the oocyte inside the woman's fallopian tube - absolutely not at implantation. It is only during artificial assisted IVF/ART that a woman is pregnant at implantation. Dr. Condic's false science would "justify" the use of abortifacients -- which even the makers of Plan B admit on their website and in their medical inserts that one mechanism of the pill is to prevent implantation of the new already existing human being. This scientific error would also justify embryo flushing, prenatal genetic diagnosis, and the use of the early human embryo until the blastocyst stage in unethical research such as human cloning and other unethical genetic engineering, etc.

(3) Not all human beings begin with "conception" (sexual reproduction); even one of every two natural monozygotic twins naturally occurring within a woman's body are asexually reproduced, as are IVF/ART twins, clones, etc. Dr. Condic's false science leaves out all asexually reproduced human beings - who can then be exploited and killed.

(4) Dr. Condic seems oblivious to the concept that the right to life is fundamentally a natural right conferred by God and by virtue of the embryo's own inherent humanity, rather than by political "consensus" or "logic".

(5) Dr. Condic also seems unaware that the question of when a human BEING begins to exist is a strictly scientific question, but that the question of when a human PERSON begins to exist is a philosophical or theological question. One can't empirically document "personhood", but only reason to it - IF the accurate human embryology is used as the starting point.

(6) Dr. Condic seems to co-opt the current "personhood" language by identifying the zygote rather than the embryo formed at first contact of sperm and oocyte as "when human life begins". Personhood initiatives beware.

Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D.
Former career appointed biologist/biochemist NCI/NIH, and
Professor of the history of philosophy, and of medical ethics
December 20, 2009-January 2, 2010 Issue
Posted 12/14/09 at 1:04 PM
By Sue Ellin Browder

When Human Life Begins

Many politicians and lawyers nowadays say the answer to this question remains shrouded in "mystery." As pro-abortion Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic, told NBC News' Tom Brokaw last year, "I don't think anybody can tell you when ... human life begins." Vice President Joe Biden, another pro-abortion Catholic, told Brokaw he personally believes life begins at conception simply as a "matter of faith."

But cutting-edge biology can answer this question objectively, accurately and definitively. In her paper "When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective," Maureen Condic, a senior fellow at The Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person, spells out the simple scientific facts. It's available at

In a conversation with the Register's Sue Ellin Browder, Condic, who is also associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, explained how these facts can help all people of good will deepen our nation's dialogue about the beginnings of life.

You said the first step to understanding when a human person begins is to understand how a whole living being (an organism) differs from a clump of cells.

Yes. Living beings exist, and we all recognize them - dogs, cats, mosquitoes, oak trees, people. As living beings, we're all integrated, functioning wholes. We have parts that all work together in order to do the job of life. Sometimes diseases, injuries or defects - birth defects, for example - can compromise the functioning of the whole being. But even if a little baby is born without arms, a very unfortunate birth defect, we all recognize it's still a baby.

So a living being differs from a clump of cells in that the organism has interacting parts working together as a coordinated whole?

Yes. Although collections of human cells are alive, they fail to work together in an interdependent, coordinated way to "carry on the activities of life."

So when do you first see an embryo behaving in this way - as a whole being with integrated parts all working together in a coordinated way?

The scientific evidence on this is very clear. You see this kind of holistic functioning from the moment when a new cell, distinct from the sperm and the egg, comes into existence.

How quickly does this fusion between sperm and egg take place?

It's a very rapid event. In less than a second, an entirely new human cell comes into existence. This new human cell (known as a zygote) has a unique molecular composition that's distinct from either the sperm or the egg. And its behavior also differs radically from that of either sperm or egg.

In what way?

Well, for example, the zygote's first act is to change its composition so no other sperm can bind to its surface. This happens within the first 30 minutes following sperm-egg fusion.

So you're saying this little single cell biologically acts as a coordinated whole "in its own interest," so to speak?

I would say that even at the one-cell stage, the zygote is directing its own development. About five or six days later, at about the time of implantation, the embryo produces a hormone that can be detected in the mother's blood or urine to tell her she's pregnant.

This human zygote seems to be very busy. Why do so many people believe a human person's life begins at a later stage?

Many people think that because the embryo isn't fully formed, it's not a new individual. A colleague recently told me that the embryo is merely "a unique human cell in the process of becoming a new human, but not there yet."

This way of thinking is compelling because it's similar to our thinking about the much more familiar process of manufacturing. A car isn't a car until it rolls off the assembly line. Until then, it's just a bunch of parts in the process of becoming a car.

But you said a profound difference exists between manufacturing a car and embryonic development. And what is that?

The difference is who (or what) is doing the "producing." The embryo is not being passively built by some external "builder" controlling the assembly process. Rather, the embryo is manufacturing itself.

There is actually no endpoint to the "building" of a self-organizing human being. It's an ongoing process that continues from sperm-egg fusion - the "moment of conception" - through birth, maturation and aging and ends only in death.

If a person begins at fusion (fertilization), what does this say about "emergency contraception" pills like Plan B? The manufacturer says Plan B doesn't kill a person because it doesn't disrupt an implanted pregnancy.

Well, I think the jury is still out on whether Plan B kills an implanted embryo. But my concern is that once an embryo has been conceived, even preventing implantation is killing it.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists actually redefined "pregnancy" in 1965 as beginning not at fertilization but at implantation. Some say it was done to get around the fact an intrauterine device could cause abortions. What do you think of that?

I think it was done for political reasons. But, that said, I think defining "pregnancy" as implantation makes perfect sense both medically and biologically.

Interesting. Why?

Because "pregnancy" is the state of the woman, and a woman does not become pregnant until she's gestating an embryo or fetus. That requires implantation.

But that's irrelevant to the life of the individual conceived at fertilization. I actually think a fairly strong legal argument can be made that taking a lethal action against a human being prior to implantation steps outside the whole Roe v. Wade jurisprudence entirely.

In what way?

The whole basis of the "right" to an abortion is that a woman has a right to control her own body.

Ah. But prior to implantation, the self-organizing human embryo isn't attached to her body. Right. It's not involving your body if you're taking lethal action toward an embryo prior to implantation.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court declined to decide when a human person begins. Could these new biological facts challenge Roe v. Wade at its very foundation?

Let's put it this way: We need to define what we're actually taking lethal action against because the biology is unequivocal. You can't argue with the biology. Anybody who tries will be blown out of the water. There's no argument about the fact that embryos are human beings from a scientifically well-defined "moment of conception." That's what they are.

This brings up a frequently asked question that goes beyond when life begins. And that is: When does the right to life begin?

I think ultimately this is the real debate. Let's stop arguing about when life begins. We know when life begins. There's no question about it. Beyond that, you're then left with the question "When do we assign rights to this individual?"

Let's talk about what we really are arguing about: When do rights begin? When do we confer rights upon embryos? We know they are clearly human beings - a living member of the human species - from the one-cell stage forward. When do we actually value these persons sufficiently to allow them the right to continued existence?

You said that when we assign rights to an individual person is ostensibly an arguable point. I think ultimately the implications of the argument become terrifying pretty quickly. But, still, you can make the argument that we as a society give and take away rights all the time. You know, children don't drive cars, vote or drink alcohol. And aged people who run their cars up onto bus stops and kill people have their right to drive taken away. So based on their biological state - their physical or mental competence, their age, their maturity - we confer or revoke rights on people all the time.

So how do we decide when to confer rights on a person in the embryonic stage of development? There are a number of ways to do it. The first is that we assign rights intrinsically to you as a person simply because you're a member of the human species. That's the historical way rights have been assigned in this country and throughout the world. "All men are created equal." All members of the human race have certain rights that accrue to them inherently, among which are the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That's in the Declaration of Independence.

But many people, even Catholic politicians, rebel against this way of conferring rights on embryonic persons. Why?

I think the problem is the emotional response. People can follow the argument up through the point of "Okay, so an embryo is a human organism, and it starts at fertilization." But then they look at this clump of cells. They look at their spouse, child or grandmother. And they protest, "How can you possibly say these two things are of equal moral worth? How can you equate this little ball of cells with my child who's dying of cancer or my grandmother who has Parkinson's?" Obviously, your emotions and your intuitions just go into a stage of revolt. They say, "It's not possible. These two things are too different in magnitude: One is foreign and small and it doesn't even look like a person; it doesn't do anything. And the other one is this individual I love and whose health I care about."

So I think that's what drives the rejection of rights adhering in a person simply because of what they are - a member of the human species. People reject it, and they cast about for other ways to assign rights.

What other ways are there?

One argument is that rights gradually accrue as a function of some aspect of biological maturity. For example, when my lungs are mature to the point that I can have viability if I'm born, then I have the right to life.

But you said most people reject viability as a meaningful argument. Why?

Because viability says nothing about whether or not the developing fetus we're talking about is actually a person. It only says something about the state of our technology. Why should a fetus in rural Nebraska without access to sophisticated neonatal intensive care be a nonperson at 30 weeks because we just don't have the equipment to keep it alive, but a fetus at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston be a person at 20 weeks? It seems absurd to make personhood contingent on the availability of technology.

What about assigning rights according to brain maturity - consciousness or, perhaps, the capacity for reason or self-awareness?

I can understand why people focus on consciousness, because our ability to understand ourselves is the basis for all our most meaningful experiences. Our memories, feelings, emotions and thoughts all involve the ability to reflect on yourself and to be aware of who you are as a thinker, an actor, a person who chooses. It's the intimacy of this conscious experience, I think, that drives people to believe this is somehow critical to being a human being. And yet when we try to assign rights in this way, we run immediately into problems. Given the very, very slow course of brain development - which is my field - the brain isn't fully "mature" until you're in your 20s. The question "When do you have a brain?" depends on how you define "brain." The strict neurobiologist would say, well, at age 25. That's a mature brain. And from then on out, it's a declining brain. You have a very brief window of time where your brain gets to maturity - and then it starts falling apart. Sad but true. Since the "mature brain" exists only for some brief moment of time, after which it starts decay, how can we use this as the criterion on which we're to assign the right to life?

What about consciousness as a criterion for assigning rights?

If we use consciousness as a basis, what about retarded individuals who never achieve a fully mature level of consciousness? Are we going to assign rights proportionate to intelligence - with smart people having greater liberty and more rights than less intelligent people?

Everybody rejects this immediately: "Oh, that's absurd! Of course we don't do that!" But then, where's the bar? Where are we going to set the consciousness bar so it's low enough to exclude embryos but high enough to include severely retarded people? And if we set the bar below a typically human level of consciousness, then we run into problems coming up from the bottom. Why are not chimpanzees then human persons? And why are not dogs human persons? Plenty of animals have a level of brain function comparable to that of a newborn.

Then you said there's the social-consensus way of assigning rights. What's that about?

People will say, "Well, okay, personhood doesn't have to be linked to biology. It's just a social consensus. When people feel 'comfortable' calling something a person, then it is. We're just going to get everybody together in a big group hug and decide 'where we feel comfortable' conferring rights upon a baby."

The problem with this, of course, is that once you've embarked down this road - that we've all just "agreed" that a fetus has a right to live at a certain point in time because "we feel good about this" - you eventually undermine the concept of rights completely.

In what way?

Once rights become a matter of social consensus, on what basis could you possibly object to Nazi Germany? There was a social consensus there: The majority of voters elected Hitler and supported his policies. They all got together, and coming out of their little huddle, agreed that Jews didn't have any rights.

To people who take this social-consensus view of rights, it seems "reasonable" and "intuitive." It feels like it should make sense. And yet as soon as you start pushing it intellectually in any way whatsoever, it really means there are no rights at all. If there's only consensus, there's no conceivable basis for objecting to denying rights to anyone.

So we're left to come up with another view - or to accept the uncomfortable truth that rights adhere in a person simply because they're a human being. And if that's the case - if rights accrue to a person independent of their size, state of maturity, functional abilities, consciousness or any other feature - the conclusion is inescapable: We have to confer rights on embryos from the one-cell stage onward.

Sue Ellin Browder writes from Ukiah, California.