The new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) draft Strategic Plan defines a human being as “beginning at conception." This is a powerful declaration and could be seen by some as a positive shift toward scientific reality, but it is hollow, as the term "conception" is invalid, ambiguous and exclusionary. If HHS truly wants to advance its mission of scientifically-grounded health and wellness for ALL human beings, their strategic plan should use the objective, accurate and empirical scientific facts about when a human being begins to exist.
The word “conception” is unscientific and was formally rejected by FIPAT (Federative International Program for Anatomical Terminology), the international scientific organization responsible for reviewing and publishing the correct facts and terminology associated with human anatomy and human development from fertilization to birth. The scientifically accurate word for human sexual reproduction is fertilization. The biological science of human embryology formally instituted this fact 75 years ago as part of the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development, the global standard of human embryological research, and the Carnegie Stages continue to be verified annually by a global committee of scientific experts. The 23 Carnegie Stages cover human development during the eight-week embryonic period, and document that in sexual reproduction a new, whole, individual, living human being — an individual member of the human species — begins to exist at the beginning of the process of fertilization, when a sperm makes first contact with an oocyte/“egg." A new human being, a human embryo, is represented by Carnegie Stage 1a.
In addition to being unscientific, the term “conception” is unclear, and so by defining a human being as “beginning at conception” HHS immediately undermines their own mission of serving and protecting all human beings. Ronan O’Rahilly, one of the world’s foremost authorities on human embryology, has said that the word “conception” should not be used because it is equivocal and “may refer either to fertilization or to implantation and hence is best avoided.” This distinction matters because fertilization occurs (a new human life starts) about five to seven days prior to implantation. HHS’ use of the muddled term “conception” is thus not only unscientific, but it also leads to scientific illiteracy and confusion for the general public. In the United States, many states politically exploit the vagueness of the term and misdefine “conception," as well as normal “pregnancy," as beginning at implantation. This has led to erroneous public policy decisions and laws about contraception, pregnancy, abortifacients, abortion, and the abuse of the early human embryo in destructive experimental research. It also automatically precludes any possibility of ethically and legally valid “informed consent."
Moreover, “conception” only applies to sexually reproduced human beings, but human reproduction occurs in two ways: sexual (by the biological process of fertilization) and a-sexual (by the biological processes of regulation, cloning, genetic engineering, etc.). The immediate product of human reproduction (sexual or a-sexual) is a new, whole, individual, living, single-cell human embryo. The single-cell human embryo is also the start of the continuum of human life. This is a biological fact that states that at any point in time from the beginning of the process of human reproduction (sexual or a-sexual) until death, there exists the same, whole, individual and integrated human organism. By defining a human being as “beginning at conception," HHS is excluding all a-sexually reproduced human beings from their mission of protecting, serving and respecting all human beings throughout their lives.
Unfortunately, HHS has a history of assimilating and documenting inaccurate science. In fact, there are currently two false definitions in OHRP’s (Office for Human Research Protections) federal regulations for the use of human subjects in research, under the heading “Protection of Human Subjects”; “pregnancy” and “fetus” are misdefined as beginning at implantation. Scientifically, pregnancy normally begins when a new human embryo begins to exist, at the beginning of the process of fertilization in a woman’s fallopian tube (Carnegie Stage 1a), not at implantation in a woman’s uterus/"womb’" (Carnegie Stage 4). Defining pregnancy as beginning at implantation is scientifically flawed and justifies the use of abortifacients and the manipulation of the early human embryo prior to implantation. Which definition is used also impacts how pharmaceutical companies are legally required to market and label birth control, i.e., as a contraceptive that prevents human sexual reproduction (fertilization) and pregnancy, and/or as an abortifacient that terminates an existing human embryo and pregnancy. Again, lawmakers are preventing individuals from making informed decisions and giving their informed consent. Also, in the real world, fetus is defined as beginning at nine weeks post-fertilization through birth. Thus, all protections for the human embryo through 8 weeks post-fertilization are verbally eliminated. There is no formal definition of “human embryo” anywhere in the OHRP federal regulations.
Human embryologists know the fundamental, objective, accurate and empirical facts about when a human being begins to exist, and if HHS is truly interested in the health and wellness of all human beings throughout the continuum of human life, then the corrected version of their strategic plan will contain the scientifically accurate information about when a human life starts, including precise definitions of critical scientific terms (e.g., “fertilization," "human embryo," "human fetus," "pregnancy," "human sexual reproduction," "human a-sexual reproduction," "human being"). The science is undeniable, and it is time for HHS to stand up for science.
Brooke Stanton is the CEO of Contend Projects, a non-partisan, not-for-profit education organization dedicated to spreading accurate scientific information about human embryology and when a human being begins to exist.