[NOTEBOOK]Improving Life, or Debasing It?

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[NOTEBOOK]Improving Life, or Debasing It?

How would parents feel if their baby had genetic material belonging to a stranger in his or her cells? Such babies were born in the United States recently, thanks to a modern medical technique called "ooplasmic transfer," whereby small pieces of a donor's genetic material was used to "patch over" defective sections of the mother's egg cell.

But this development is not just confined to overseas. Here in Korea, a gynecological clinic specializing in infertility carried out research into using similar techniques to overcome infertility. It has now confirmed a pregnancy.

When this feat became known, infertility clinics showed two different kinds of reactions. One was to put on hold or cancel experiments or operations using new technology deemed ethically questionable.

The other was to highlight the medical and economic benefits that arise from the technical developments. Those in the second group argue that excessively strict ethical regulations deny infertile women the chance to have a baby and disallow or force to give up medical experimentation into new technologies that would bring potentially enormous profits to the nation.

Are we placing too many strictures on scientific investigation?

Medical treatment to resolve infertility is the most controversial area where medicine conflicts with ethics. For example, doctors use a drug to stimulate ovulation in infertile women so that they produce more eggs. With these, the doctors produce 10 to 20 fertilized eggs and transplant three to five of them in the mother's uterus. This is to increase the chance of a successful transplant.

The problem arises when more than one of the eggs leads to pregnancy. The mother has to face the prospect of terminating some of the pregnancies and doctors agonize over which embryos to abort. When it is about eight weeks after pregnancy, doctors have no other choice but carry out "selective abortions"--meaning they have to kill unwanted embryos.

There are also issues concerning what to do with leftover fertilized eggs. These eggs are necessary by-products of artificial fertilization and transplant. Hospitals usually dispose of the leftover eggs because it is too expensive to keep them. But this is not the worst fate that could await some of these tiny beginnings of life. Some hospitals nourish the eggs so they grow into embryos and then use them for experiments.

What about sperm banks? Since there are so few sperm donors, occasionally hospitals use the sperm of a single donor to treat 10 different infertile women. It can be said that there is a possibility of the birth of 10 babies from a father almost simultaneously.

Medical science to solve tragic infertility and ethical issues are always destined to be intertwined. The problem is how to achieve a balance between medical science and ethics.

In the end, the only way to find this balance is to seek a social consensus. Only by determining public sentiment can we construct a suitable social system and related laws to regulate this vast, virtually boundless area of medical science.

-The writer is an information and science news reporter of the JoongAng Ilb.

by Ko Jong-kwan

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