Ethical Scandal at Korean Laboratory Raises Questions Concerning Human Cloning

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Recent allegations that the famous Korean engineer of the world’s first cloned human embryos obtained the eggs for those clones from his own team of junior researchers have jolted the scientific community.

November 23, 2005
Volume 3, Number 16

Recent allegations that the famous Korean engineer of the world’s first cloned human embryos obtained the eggs for those clones from his own team of junior researchers have jolted the scientific community.

Earlier this month, Dr. Gerald Schatten, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, severed ties with Dr. Woo Suk Hwang’s laboratory at Seoul National University in the Republic of (South) Korea because Hwang had obtained human eggs unethically. Two years ago “Nature” reported that a young PhD student employed at Hwang’s lab had told the journal that she and several other junior colleagues had donated eggs for the lab’s groundbreaking cloning research. At the time, Hwang denied this allegation and asserted that “Nature” had mistaken what the young researcher had meant to say because of her poor English. Eventually, the PhD student herself also stated that Hwang’s revision of her remarks was accurate. Schatten’s decision to break with Hwang’s lab, however, lends new credibility to the assertion that the initial story in “Nature” was true.

The procedure whereby a young woman’s eggs are harvested for in vitro fertilization and/or human cloning can be dangerous to her health, and consequently human eggs can be worth tens of thousands of dollars in the United States, where there is an open market for eggs. In South Korea, the incentives, such as extensions of tenured positions and more prestigious employment, for a young female scientist to donate her eggs for her lab’s research can also be compelling. This is why medical ethicists around the world have been alarmed at the news that Schatten has severed ties with Hwang’s lab.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, by Rick Weiss, Marcy Darnovsky, the Associate Director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, California, has stated in reaction to Schatten’s decision that, “We’re in danger of making women into guinea pigs for this research even before there are any treatments to be tested.”

Medical ethicists who have made critiques of the entire enterprise of human cloning in order to produce embryonic stem cells for medical research seem to have had their arguments strengthened by the news. California-based medical ethicist, Wesley Smith, has written in his “Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World” that the full legalization and funding of research into producing cures from cloned embryos’ stem cells might lead to poor women in the undeveloped world selling “their egg cells at bargain-basement prices.”

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