[VIEWPOINT]Embryo Research: Opinions Needed

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[VIEWPOINT]Embryo Research: Opinions Needed

In 1978, the first test tube baby was born, developed from an egg scientists fertilized in the lab and then implanted in the mother's uterus. Its arrival sparked a controversy surrounding the treatment of embryos that continues today.

What is the legal and moral status of an embryo? Should embryos be considered individual human beings? If embryos cannot be given the same status as an adult or infant, then what is an embryo? A potential human being? Who are the owners of embryos stored by fertility clinics? If the donors give their consent, can laboratory-fertilized embryos be sold?

Doctors and scientists argue that the study of embryos is essential to overcome sterility and genetic diseases and unravel the mystery of the origin of life. In 1990, after 10 years of deliberation, the British parliament approved a bill that laid down strict preconditions for pregnancy clinics to conduct infertility studies on embryos.

The United States, meanwhile, has failed to come to a consensus on embryo research. An ethics committee formed in 1978 created guidelines for the study of embryos, but these were ignored by the Reagan administration. Embryo studies were thus ineligible for funding from public foundations such as the National Institutes of Health, and embryo research was left to private clinics.

In 1993, then U.S. President Bill Clinton established a panel at the National Institutes of Health to consider embryo studies. The panel, which consists of doctors, scientists, ethics scholars, policymakers and representatives of civic organizations, defined an embryo as a stage in the development of life and an object of serious moral stature, but without the same status as an infant or juvenile. The panel came to the consensus that an embryo that has been formed for less than two weeks, before the so-called "primitive streaks" of development appear, cannot be viewed as a human being, and agreed that the government should support embryo research. But this decision met fierce opposition from anti-abortion and religious groups, which charged that embryo studies were tantamount to abortion. President Clinton, fearing political ramifications, had to halt plans to approve embryo studies.

Debate on embryo research was sparked again in 1997 and 1998 with the first cloning of animals and the successful attempt by U.S. scientists to separate the embryonic stem cells, which develop into organs and organisms. While some argued embryo studies could lead to the cloning of humans and genetic disaster, others hailed these events as a medical triumph that would eventually resolve the critical shortage of human transplant organs. The Clinton administration finally resolved to support embryo studies, but then U.S. political leadership changed hands. The Bush administration, which has a much more conservative position on abortion, is weighing political calculations with the foreseeable benefits of embryo studies. Britain, which has underscored the medical benefits, passed a bill permitting embryo studies with the overwhelming support of parliament.

The Korean Bioethics Advisory Commission, made up of civic representatives, ethics scholars and representatives from religious organizations, is now discussing important issues such as human cloning, genetic modification and bio patents.

But media coverage of the commission's activities is intermittent and few have shown interest. The bulletin board on the commission's homepage (kbac.or.kr) posted few opinions after human cloning was covered on television. Apart from scientists concerned with practical issues and some religion organizations, it is hard to find anyone with an opinion about this sensitive social issue. This indifference could contribute to making the commission's conclusions one-sided.

Citizens should pay more attention to this advisory organ, which will work out a draft agreement in May. Its conclusions may result in bioethics legislation.


The writer is professor of science history at the University of Toronto.

by Hong Sung-ook

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