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4.1. Is the 'Pre-embryo' not Equivalent to a Human Being?

- LEE Pil Ryul
Korea National Open University, Korea

Erwin Chargaff, a great biochemist who discovered the parity theory of the bases in the DNA and thus prepared the discovery of Watson and Crick, once made a following critical remark on the newly developed discipline, bioethics: A fashion is going around the world - the fashion of bioethics. All the powers have entered into a holy hypocritical alliance with this fashion(Chargaff 1997).

With this remark, a parody of the first two sentences of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, Chargaff intended to point out the weakness of bioethics. Namely he expressed his skeptical view of bioethics experts who run after the activities of biotechnology and grant the approval to the result of its research. Like Erwin Chargaff I am somewhat skeptical about the activities of bioethics experts. The leading genetic engineering companies like Monsanto and Novartis have their own bioethics experts group. The companies pay these experts and instead they give advice about the potential ethical problems arising from the genetic research or products. Nevertheless, these companies carry out various genetic engineering researches that could raise ethical problems.

With such a preoccupation I prepared this paper. In this paper I like to point out the weakness of the assertion that the majority of repro-biologists likes to make concerning embryo experimentation. I suppose that most researchers of reproductive biology willing to experiment with the human embryo do not have any earnest ethical concerns about their experimentation. All scientists without any exception carry out observation, experimentation or simulation. Scientists have their own objects of experiment. The experimental objects of inorganic chemists that I studied are nonliving small minerals or compounds. Generally they do not have any ethical concern during their experimentation with those materials. Likewise repro-biologists have their own experimental objects and among these objects there are human embryos. The experiments of scientific researchers have somewhat routine character, and if there are experimental objects on the table, they are routinely taken into the experiments without ethical concerns. The human embryos too could not become an exception.

Yet the scientific researchers are not immune to the public criticism. Confronted by those criticisms they begin to legitimate their research. Especially the experiments with human embryos could raise strong public concerns. Therefore they seek the way to give legitimation to their research. As a part of such an effort the word 'pre-embryo' was introduced and various arguments asserting the nonhuman nature of embryos were made. The term 'pre-embryo' was introduced to distinguish the human embryos without primitive streak from the embryos with it (Singer & Khuse, 1990). By using the word 'pre-embryo' scientists hoped to hinder the embryo experimentation from becoming the center of public concern. Before then scientists used the word embryo to describe not only the entity that exists for the first two weeks after fertilization but also the entity with primitive streak emerging two weeks after fertilization.

The researchers experimenting with human embryo wholeheartedly embraced the word 'pre-embryo' and assert that the 'pre-embryo' is not equivalent to a human being and thus we should distinguish the experiments with 'pre-embryo' from those with embryo (Silver 1998). In Korea there are some researchers experimenting with so-called 'pre-embryo' and they generally mention that the 'pre-embryo' is not a human being. But I am not sure whether they really accept the notion that the embryo with primitive streak is a human being. During an interview with a biologist working in an IVF clinic I got an impression that if necessary he could well take the embryos with primitive streak into his experiments. Experimentation with surplus embryos from IVF practices is not forbidden in Korea. I suppose, if necessary, researchers experimenting with human embryo would not hesitate to carry out any experimentation of embryos with primitive streak. Another researcher, who made a first cloned cow in Korea, asserts that the entity made from human egg cell and somatic cell, be it with primitive streak or not, should not be considered as a human being. However, confronted by public criticism they use logical arguments supporting the view that the 'pre-embryo' is not a human being.

Repro-biologists would like to compare the death rate of fertilized eggs in the womb and the death of embryo by experimentation in the test tube. The death rate of fertilized eggs in the womb is about 75%. They make use of this high embryo death rate to argue that the death of embryo during the experiment need not be considered so gravely. They would like to say: most embryos even in the womb die, so don't overestimate the value of the embryo. The embryo in vitro need not be considered as human being but is a mere clump of human cells.

If most repro-biologists in Korea merely believe that the embryo is no different from any other clump of human cells, there is no sense in criticizing them on the logical base. However, if they still try to defend their position with logical arguments like 75% death rate of embryo, it is necessary to point out the weakness and danger of their arguments. There are two weak and danger points in using the embryo death rate to legitimate embryo experimentation. One is that they apply the probability of 75% death to all embryos, and the other is that they do not distinguish the natural death from the death brought by experimentation of repro-biologists.

Among 100 embryos developed from 100 fertilizations 75 die. Only 25 develop to babies and see the light. But we do not know which fertilization is to bring a baby to the world. Therefore, we can treat the embryos as if either all of them are alive and become babies or all of them are dead. The repro-biologists thinking that the embryo is a clump of human cells should take the second position. Still, there will be 25 babies developed from 100 embryos. From the view of second position are these 25 babies alive or not?

Now about the natural death and death through manipulation. There is no person who can escape the death. They die either from the diseases like heart attack and cancer or simply from aging. We call such a death natural death and accept simply as a normal death. There is another type of death brought by intervention of certain people. We call this case murder.

In Korea the average life span is about 70 years. If a person lives 10 years more than the average life span, about 75% who were born with this person die during that period. They die either naturally or from the attack of other people. 75% of embryos die during nine months period and 75% of people in Korea die during 80 years of period. If we apply the assertion of repro-biologists to the living people, their live could not be respected properly, because during 80 years period 75% of them would die like the embryos during nine months. The only difference between two cases is the time span that 75% of embryos die during nine months and 75% of adult people die during 80 years.

The repro-biologists considering the 'pre-embryo' not a human being do not distinguish the death of embryos in the womb and that of in vitro through the experimentation. If we follow their position, there is no need to distinguish the natural death from the murder of the people. However, if we accept the universal attitude of mankind that strictly distinguished between the natural death and the murder, we cannot help distinguishing between the natural death and the other type of death of embryos. The death of embryos in the womb without outside intervention is natural death. Whether it occurs with 75% probability or 98% probability, it is natural death. On the contrary, the death of embryos in vitro by the active intervention of the researchers cannot be considered as natural and normal. It can be rather compared to the murder of adult person.

I made an extreme comparison, because most people in Korea do not see the danger of embryo manipulation. Recently a repro-biologist working in an IVF clinic succeeded in getting a neuro-stem cell from the surplus human embryo and in curing the mice with Parkinson disease. In the media his act was praised as a triumph in the stem cell research and nobody indicated the danger of such a kind of act. In a meeting of ministerial advising committee of bioethics last year a member representing Buddhism said that the death of embryos caused by the experimentation could be considered as an offering in a Buddhist sense for the people with incurable diseases. That is the situation in Korea and I think that it must be changed. People who seriously consider ethical problems arising from reproduction technology and genetic engineering should make efforts to change such a situation.


Chargaff, Erwin 1997, "Bioethik und andere Missetaten", in Scheidewege, Muenchen.
Dawson, Karen 1990, "Introduction: An outline of scientific aspects of human embryo research", in Singer, Peter; Helga Khuse; Stephen Buckle, Karen Dawson; Pascal kasimba (eds.), Embryo Experimentation, Cambridge University Press.
Silver, Lee M. 1998, Remaking Eden, New York.

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