Before confessing last week to ethical lapses in his research, South Korean stem-cell pioneer Dr. Hwang Woo Suk had enjoyed god-like status in his native land.
The veterinarian and Seoul National University professor had made international headlines in 2004 when his team was the first to harvest stem cells from cloned human embryos. Since then, the South Korean government had granted him the official title of “Supreme Scientist,” Korean Air officials had dubbed him a “national treasure” deserving of free passage on its flights for a decade, and his online fan club had attracted some 15,000 members.
Hwang’s golden-boy reputation came under a cloud in recent weeks, as he faced mounting questions about how he obtained human eggs for his research. At a November 24 press conference in Seoul, he admitted that two of his junior researchers had served as egg donors–a practice discouraged by international medical ethics standards because subordinates may feel pressured into donation to please their bosses. Hwang also acknowledged that he had used eggs purchased in 2003 from some 20 women–an ethical taboo among researchers that was recently outlawed in Korea because it can lead poor women to donate eggs out of desperation. Hwang said the staff donations and payments for eggs had taken place without his knowledge, but he conceded that he had later learned about the researchers donating eggs and had lied about it.
“Being too focused on scientific development, I may not have seen all the ethical issues related to my research,” said Hwang, who resigned his post as director of the government-funded World Stem Cell Hub. “I should be here reporting the successful results of our research, but I’m sorry instead to have to apologize.”
Hwang’s confession may have cost him his job, but it did not appear to squelch his superstar standing. According to news reports, South Koreans have demonstrated their support for him in Internet polls, held a candlelight vigil in his honor, denounced the television network that helped expose his misdeeds, and even offered their eggs for his research. As one would-be donor explained to the BBC, “I think that Dr Hwang is the brightest star of Korea in the 21st century and an innovative figure who could save the human race. His research is already well advanced and must continue whatever the cost.”
Many outside South Korea have also rushed to defend Hwang on his scientific merits, if not his moral ones, saying that his lies and lapses have little significance in the larger picture of embryonic stem cell research. Stephen Minger, director of the stem-cell laboratory at King’s College in London, told the Associated Press that the situation in South Korea is “distressing, but I don’t think it has any major ramifications on the field.” Closer to home, medical ethicists Arthur Caplan and Glenn E. McGee acknowledged in their “On Bioethics” column that Hwang’s ethical violations may mean that “a lot of people will start asking whether or not stem cell researchers are a rogue lot, not to be trusted.” But rather than urging zealous stem-cell-research backers to reassess their support for scientists who use human embryos as disposable research material, Caplan and McGee said Hwang’s failings should spur the U.S. government to begin funding and regulating the research on a grand scale.
The Hwang scandal has highlighted the research-at-all-costs mentality that now dominates public discussions of embryonic stem cells. Promoters of embryonic research routinely dismiss ethical concerns about the cloning and killing of human embryos as religious fanaticism. Yet many think nothing of making extravagant, faith-based promises about the as-yet-unproven benefits of embryonic stem cells, and they patently ignore the confirmed benefits of adult stem cells and umbilical-cord-blood cells that have been used to treat dozens of conditions, from heart damage to leukemia to corneal scarring.
Many embryonic-stem-cell-research activists also discount concerns about the demand for eggs leading to ethical breaches and the exploitation of women. Scientists can be trusted to comply with agreed-upon professional and government standards, they say. Yet when the world’s leading stem-cell researcher admits that the frenetic pursuit of promised cures made the temptation to cheat too great, they dismiss his behavior as irrelevant to the debate about his research.
In fact, Hwang’s lies and lapses are a clear illustration of the ethical problems created by embryonic-stem-cell research: the immense demand for human eggs that threatens to transform desperately poor women into reluctant egg donors; the risks to those women of illness, infertility, and death that may go unmentioned by researchers seeking their eggs; and the dire consequences for a culture that makes a commodity of human eggs, human embryos, and human life itself.
Supporters of embryonic-stem-cell research say that we must destroy life to prolong life, that concern for the welfare of those walking among us demands that we disregard the lives of those waiting to be born. One need not be a religious fanatic to see that there is something deeply disturbing about the might-makes-right logic behind embryonic-stem-cell research, and about societies that regard that logic as dogma and its scientific defenders as demigods.
–Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.