The increasing number of ethics scandals surrounding the stem cell research program in South Korea is shedding some interesting light on the thought processes of boosters for the new medical research. The defenders of the researchers, as well as the nature of the scandals themselves, show just how alienated these researchers are from the actual ethical implications of their research.
The stem cell research that has generated so much interest in South Korea was pioneered by Hwang Woo-suk, who in 2004 announced that he and his team had managed to harvest stem cells from cloned embryos. This feat was unprecedented at the time, and researchers and money poured into South Korea to take advantage of Hwang’s work.
Earlier in November, however, problems began plaguing Hwang’s research team at the. On Nov. 12, Gerald Schatten, an American researcher working with Hwang, resigned from his position over allegations of impropriety by Hwang’s team in obtaining human egg cells for use in their research.
It turns out that Hwang used eggs from some of the women on his research staff. Additionally, he appears to have paid women for their eggs in much the same fashion as fertility clinics.
This revelation has caused much beard-stroking in the scientific community. On Dec.1, the scientific journal Nature called for an investigation into the allegations and scientists the world over have expressed concern over the ethical implications. Leonard Zon, former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research was quoted by USA Today as saying that there is “no question that people are taking a step back from interacting with the (Hwang).”
Of course, when we say ethical implication, we mean this in only the very narrow sense of ethics embraced by the scientific community. For them, the problem is that Hwang obtained the eggs from the wrong source or in the wrong way. Never mind what Hwang is actually doing, that is cloning human beings for the purpose of performing medical research on them.
When viewed against the issues of cloning and the ethical implications of embryonic stem cell research, this whole egg donation issue seems rather petty and beside the point. Does it really matter where Hwang got the eggs? After all, if we are willing to accept that nascent human life is exploitable for our benefit, should we really be concerned about where it comes from?
The Koreans and the rest of the scientific community apparently do. In fact, passions have become so inflamed over there, where Hwang is a national hero and his work is considered a national source of pride that the TV network that broke the ethics story, Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, has faced protests by irate South Koreans. Sponsors have pulled advertising and MBC producers have received death threats.
Indeed, the troubles for MBC and Hwang will only get worse. The network is planning an expose claiming that the embryos used in the research were not actually clones of the donors. MBC producers claim to have tested the DNA of the stem cells against the DNA of the human donors and found that the two don’t match.
The rage directed at MBC can only be explained in light of the convergence of national pride and utopian scientific research. It’s as if George Washington found the Fountain of Youth and some two-bit newsrag came out and said that he really sat in his living room drinking tap water.
We can only hope that this is merely a transitory phase of public opinion, one of those tempests in a teapot that habitually animate public opinion. If this is the true face of the future, where ordinary people will angrily defend ethically questionable scientific research, then we have a lot more to worry about than egg donation.
Sean Paroski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.