Thursday, November 24, 2005

I'm Somewhat Conflicted About This

S.Korean stem cell scientist apologizes on ethics

By Jon Herskovitz and Lee Jin-joo
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's pioneering stem cell scientist apologized on Thursday that two members of his team had donated their egg cells for research, saying his rush to advance science may have clouded his ethical judgment.

Hwang Woo-suk, who became a hero in South Korea after major developments in cloning research, has been caught in a swirl of allegations over his work after a U.S. collaborator left the group, saying Hwang unethically procured human eggs.

Time magazine called Hwang's team's cloning of a dog the year's most amazing invention. Snuppy was the world's first cloned dog -- dogs are considered one of the most difficult animals to clone.

"Being too focused on scientific development, I may not have seen all the ethical issues related to my research," Hwang said.

He told a packed news conference he had become aware earlier this year that the researchers provided egg cells in 2002 and 2003, even though he had turned down their offers to do so.

"At the time technology was not as advanced as today and creating one stem cell line required oocytes (eggs). It was during this time when my researchers suggested making voluntary donations. I clearly turned it down," Hwang said.

Hwang said he could understand their way of thinking and said if he were a woman, he probably would have donated eggs.

Hwang also said he was stepping down as the head of a global stem cell hub, established only last month in South Korea.

"It is my way of seeking repentance," he said.
OK, he took responsibility for the actions of others, supposedly unbeknownst to him....gee, wish politicians were as ethical..but it's the underlying reasons that conflict me.

On the one hand, human cloning is going to happen. Whether it's initially reproductive cloning or not, doesn't matter. From a moral or an ethical stance, that debate is irrelevant. If it happens under public scrutiny, mores the better than it being performed in backalley shops (yes, I'm aware that it costs enormous sums of money and the success rate is almost hit-or-miss, but eventually, the technology improves and the success rate makes it worthwhile. Just ask Snuppy.)

On the other hand, should it?

I'm not sure. History tells me that nearly every great scientific advance has its roots or its first application in the military, and that concerns me. The ultimate biological weapon would be a human being, genetically altered to spread disease (while being unaffected by it), and since that particular application almost demands a disposable person, the cloning technology required would be minimal: life support and basic rote memorization.

But all military technologies eventually work their way into the commercial and consumer marketplaces. Look at your wristwatch, for example. That was originally designed for the military, as it was hard to aim a rifle and fire while dickering about your pockets for a watch, and yet now, everyone has at least one. Even the technology to build the atom bomb has been transformed into a cheap, if suspect, source of electricity.

So maybe we need to give this more thought and more debate than a "no human cloning" ban. As I said, I'm no fan of the idea, but I think it's important to keep an open mind about this.

The other issue this story raises is whether Dr. Hwang was forcing his subordinates to donate their eggs. See, the ethical construct that forced Hwang to resign (but not abandon his research) was not using human eggs, but that a researcher should not coerce, either morally or thru overt coercion, a team member to collaborate. Is it unethical if they still donate their eggs without his knowledge?

A less vital question, to be sure, but one that will gain importance as we attack diseases thru genetic manipulation. For example, say I'm a researcher on a project about AIDS and learn I've contracted HIV. Is it unethical for me to volunteer to be part of the study to determine if the virus can be tricked into remission by juggling my DNA (admittedly a dangerous prospect)?

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