[VIEWPOINT]Cloning’s moral issues are real“Among the French people, there are anarchists, communists, and nihilists, but no anti-Pasteurists. Questioning science has now become like questioning patriotism.” This is how a doctor in Paris, in 1887, described the French people’s enthusiasm over Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the rabies vaccine.
Professor Hwang Woo-suk recently succeeded in cloning human embryos through somatic cell nuclear transplantation, and in extracting embryonic stem cells from the embryos. He held a victorious press conference in front of U.S. scientists, who take pride in being the best in the world as far as biotechnology is concerned, and received their praise for a marvelous achievement.
This is quite an inspiration for Koreans, who have lived powerlessly to such an extent that we could not but send our youths to the battlefields in Iraq when the United States demanded we do so. What’s more, of course, Professor Hwang’s research will open the door to saving patients who suffer from incurable diseases.
A committee to support nominating Professor Hwang for the Nobel Prize is being considered by the Ministry of Science and Technology. The civic group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy has objected to this, arguing that the government should not support ethically unclear research like his.
Some sites on the Internet have been filled with criticism of this civic group. Critics said that the group did not understand the pain of patients with incurable diseases, that it was trying to disparage Professor Hwang’s achievement and that it did not understand what an honor the Nobel Prize is. The terms “hardcore” and “communist” were freely used.
Is this fair? Two points make it self-evident that ethical issues are entangled in Mr. Whang’s research.
First of all, although they support biotechnology and bioengineering more than Korea does, most advanced countries do not legally permit the reproduction of human embryos through somatic cell transplantation. Is this because these countries don’t understand the technicological advantages and medical benefits it would bring?
Secondly, in an interview after returning to Korea, Professor Hwang said that his experimental procedure could not be perfectly open and transparent. He also declared that he would stop directly experimenting with human egg cells.
It is reported that Mr. Hwang’s research was conducted with 242 freely donated ova, was approved by an ethics committee at Hanyang University, and was funded not by government grants but by a private sponsor. If this is the case, what aspect of the research, then, was not transparent?
Now that rumors are abounding, the civic group is demanding that Professor Hwang disclose his entire research process. Criticizing those who raise ethical questions about the research ― saying that they don’t understand sick people’s pain, or that they are traitors ― does not help bring about a “consensus of civil society,” which biotechnology researchers sincerely desire as well.
There are many ways to harvest stem cells. One is to use adult stem cells; the other is to use frozen embryos, which are then disposed of; a third is to use embryos developed by transplanting a somatic cell nucleus into an egg cell. Professor Hwang and his team showed for the first time that it was possible to harvest stem cells using the third method.
Transplanting a somatic cell nucleus into an ovum can be less ethically problematic than using frozen embryos, in the sense that the embryo is not developed through the union of sperm and ovum.
On the other hand, it could also be considered more ethically dubious, in the sense that the embryo can develop into a living organism once implanted on the uterine wall and, furthermore, that this living organism could directly lead to human cloning.
No one will deny the value and sincerity of purpose in research to help people who suffer from incurable illness. But the dignity of a goal does not justify all means of achieving it.
The consensus of our society is that, just as police are not allowed to use torture or even illegal wiretapping to catch a murderer, no one person should not be sacrificed, or organs sold or purchased, to save 10 patients.
For now, research on embryonic reproduction should reflect this social consensus. A bioethicist has said that the technology of bioscience is fundamentally “unpolicable” ― that is, impossible to monitor. We are taking the first step into a momentous discussion over how we should deal with the cloning technology.
* The writer is a professor of history of science and technology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Hong Sung-ook