The case of Emma and Isabella versus Sofia Vergara was about two human embryos on an unusual journey to try and reach the next stage of human development. Many media outlets are repeating the language of Vergara’s court filings and calling Emma and Isabella “pre-embryos,” suggesting that they are mere cells that only have the potential to become human beings. The problem with that description is that there is no such thing as a “pre-embryo,” and so writers, editors, and publishers using the term are disseminating spurious science. On Friday, a federal judge in Louisiana dismissed the lawsuit — a win for Vergara and, more significant, a win for fake science. Regardless of what one thinks about Sofia Vergara, Nick Loeb, and their recent legal drama, the basic, accurate science about human embryology and when a human being begins should be the standard.
Emma and Isabella are two female human beings frozen in their embryonic stage of development. Their story began in 2013 when actress Sofia Vergara and her then-fiancé Nick Loeb conceived Emma and Isabella through in vitro fertilization and requested the ART Reproductive Center to cryopreserve their offspring until they selected a surrogate. Vergara and Loeb split up before the embryos were moved to a surrogate’s uterus, and the former couple disagrees about their fate, so the embryos remain frozen. Emma and Isabella were the plaintiffs in a case against Vergara and were seeking to be transferred to a surrogate and entrusted to Loeb, so they could continue their prenatal development and be born.
For more than a century, human embryology has documented that in sexual reproduction a new, whole, individual, living human being begins to exist at first contact between a sperm and an oocyte, or “egg”; this is the beginning of the process known as fertilization. That scientific fact is documented in the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development, the global standard of human embryological research. The Carnegie Stages cover the 23 stages of development of the early human being during the embryonic period, which begins at fertilization and continues through slightly more than eight full weeks. Carnegie Stage 1a is when a new human being — a human embryo — begins.
Scientists know that prenatal human development consists of two periods (not three), the embryonic and the fetal; a human being during these periods is called an embryo and a fetus, respectively. There is no “pre-embryonic” period in the Carnegie Stages and no “pre-embryo.” These terms have a “science-y” appeal but are not in the Carnegie Stages because they are contrived words meant to convey the false notion that an early embryonic human organism is not yet a whole human being.
The term “pre-embryo” and the associated false period of human development were invented in the late 1960s to establish a reduced status for an already existing human embryo. They were devised and advanced without a mandate from human embryologists. Depending on usage, the term was intended to indicate either that no human “person” was present in the so-called pre-embryo or even that no human being was present, either before implantation (which occurs five to seven days post-fertilization) or up to seven days after it.
The creation of a “pre-embryo” and a “pre-embryonic” stage was driven by the emergence of today’s thriving global industry in assisted reproductive technology (ART), which includes in vitro fertilization (IVF), embryo cryopreservation, gestational surrogacy, etc. According to a 2016 study by Global Markets Insights, Inc., it is estimated that annual revenues for ART industries will increase more than 40 percent and reach $31.4 billion by 2023. This fake science also justifies the use of abortifacients and early human embryos in experimental research in human cloning, embryonic-stem-cell therapy, and genetic engineering, including synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and gene splicing.
Ronan O’Rahilly, one of the world’s authorities on human embryology, has said that the word “pre-embryo” should not be used because it is politically charged, not scientifically accurate, and misleading, as it imparts “the erroneous idea that a new human organism is formed at only some considerable time after fertilization.” The fraudulent term was also renounced by FIPAT (Federative International Program for Anatomical Terminology), the international scientific organization responsible for reviewing and publishing the scientifically correct facts and terminology associated with human anatomy and morphological biology (human development from fertilization to birth).
The judge in Louisiana dismissed the Vergara case on jurisdictional grounds, but fake science played a major role and is proceeding. Vergara’s legal team and many media outlets continue to propagate this “science” as if it were legitimate. Emma and Isabella are already embryos, not “pre-embryos.” They are individual human beings in their embryonic period of development. This objective and empirical scientific fact is the key to understanding and telling their story accurately. A basic, accurate understanding of the science of human embryology, and of when a human life begins, should be the starting point for reporting about human reproduction, both in this story and more broadly speaking.