Doublespeak: False Term "Pre-embryo" Re-emerges

Warns Bioethicist Claudia Navarini

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ROME, SEPT. 20, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Promotion of embryonic stem cell research and "morning-after" pills has led to the resurfacing of a false term in public discourse, warns a bioethicist.



That term is "pre-embryo," which denotes a "false phase of human development," said Dr. Claudia Navarini, professor in the School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University..

"It seemed to have definitively, unequivocally disappeared, discarded from common and scientific language," Navarini told ZENIT.

"Instead, the term 'pre-embryo' is back again," appearing "unexpectedly in scientific and popular magazines, in newspaper articles and television debates," she said.

For example, it is a term that "appears a dozen times in an article on assisted procreation in this month's issue of the Italian scientific review Le Scienze," Navarini said. The term is "used carelessly" as is the concept "fertilized ovules," the bioethicist continued.

In fact, the term "'pre-embryo' … has had very little to do with scientific rigor since its appearance," she warned.

"It was coined in 1979 by embryologist Clifford Grobstein, a specialist in the study of frogs, who admitted that in this way he wanted to 'reduce the status of the early human embryo," Navarini explained.

At that time, "the birth of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown" in 1978 "caused the dizzying proliferation of centers of in vitro fertilization," she said.

Because of this, "the then U.S. secretary of health, Joseph Califano, arousing ethical concerns about what was presented as human experimentation, called publicly for research on the early human embryo," Navarini said.

Then "Grobstein tried to resolve the concerns by declaring the early human embryo a 'pre-embryo,' namely, a non-person," she continued.

According to Navarini, "Subsequently the term was used in two important international venues: the Warnock Commission in Great Britain, directed to establishing the licit realms of human experimentation and techniques of assisted reproduction, and the Ethical Committee of the American Society for Fertility, of which Grobstein himself was a member."

Then "the scientific literature, both the specialized as well as the popular, appropriated the term, which soon became a most useful persuasive instrument of public opinion on the ethical innocuousness of embryonic manipulation," she stressed.

In fact, "in all the documents favorable to manipulation of the 'pre-embryo,' one can identify some criteria that justified its distinction from the 'real embryo,' which would appear magically on the 14th day of life and after," Navarini continued.

"Such criteria were based on the observation according to which around the 14th day of life some substantial novelties would occur in the development of the tiny man," such as "the completion of implantation in the maternal womb, initiated around the fifth, sixth day after conception," or "the increase of cellular differentiation," the bioethicist noted.

But "in reality, biological research itself has established with certainty that such 'progress' in embryonic development does not represent substantial novelties, but is part of the uninterrupted evolution of the organism from the first instant, the fertilization, until the last, the person's death," Navarini clarified.

She added that from the moment of fertilization and after, "the human being has some fixed biological properties: coordination -- namely, the fact of presenting a functionally organized unit according to an established object and autonomously pursued by the organism's genetic program; gradualness -- namely, the progressive constitution through different phases of development of the final form of the individual, according to his own identity, individuality and uniqueness."

These arguments "have met with broad consensus in the scientific community, to the almost total prohibition of the ambiguous expression," Navarini emphasized.

Yet, "in recent years, the attempts at massive distribution of the morning-after pill on one hand, and the interest in furthering research with embryonic stem cells on the other, have re-established the old debate on the human individuality of the early embryo, this time not strictly at the scientific level, but cultural and political" as well, the professor said.

"In other words, we are before a great and conscious lie," she warned.

She added: "As C.W. Kisher states: The so-called pre-embryo is a false stage of human development invented by an amphibian embryologist for political reasons, only. It has no credible scientific justification. Thus, the inclusion of this term into the language of human embryology has become a hoax of gigantic proportion.'"