[VIEWPOINT]We need a talk about ethics

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[VIEWPOINT]We need a talk about ethics

Professor Hwang Woo-suk and his bioengineering research team presented the world’s first cloned dog, named “Snuppy.” Ironically, the research result was published in the renowned scientific journal Nature, which raised intense questions about the ethics of Professor Hwang’s human embryonic stem cell cloning research in May and June last year.
Along with the patient-specific stem cell study published in Science in May, Professor Hwang and his team has established themselves as a research group with leading technology in cloning science. I give a round of applause to the achievements of Professor Hwang and his team.
Perhaps it is only natural that the Koreans, who don’t have areas in which they can boast they are the world’s best, pay national attention to Professor Hwang and his team.
However, let’s recall the excitement last spring, when the entire nation was talking about the “Hwang Woo-suk Syndrome.” Media ran special stories on Professor Hwang daily. While they dutifully mentioned ethical issues inherent to embryonic stem cell research and outstanding obstacles, newspapers and television networks were very enthusiastic in praising the scientist.
The discussion of life ethics, which deserves a place, was silenced by the celebratory mood of society. It might be an unthinkable thing in a mature society.
The advancement of cloning technology is nothing but stunning. However, the more developed the cloning engineering becomes, the bigger the risk of human cloning. Now that a dog has been cloned, the focus of cloning technology development is more likely to shift to human cloning.
So far, Professor Hwang and his team have repeatedly made their opposition to human cloning clear. Rhetorically claiming that there won’t be a cloned human in the next 100 years, Professor Hwang dismissed the possibility of human cloning. With today’s technology, he said, the possibility of presenting a cloned human is extremely small.
However, the problem is not so simple. If someone wants to try human cloning, he can use Professor Hwang’s technology, which has already been made public in science journals. Today’s cloning technology could be a stepping stone leading to the human cloning of the future.
Whatever the course might have been, Korea has become a leader in the cloning technology field. The world is paying attention to the speed and direction of the cloning technology development in Korea. In order to secure this position, the government has provided enormous research funds and police escorts and promised to establish a stem cell bank.
However, the government remains passive in urging social discussion on the responsible use of cloning technology or the creation of a systematic measure to prevent the abuse and excessive use of the technology. The National Bio-ethics Committee, which was launched in April, has been extremely inactive. So far, there has only been one general meeting, and the seven minister-level members of the 21-member committee did not attend the meeting. Isn’t an active and serious approach far more important than grand titles?
At the moment, Korea and the United Kingdom are the only two nations permitting stem cell cloning. Moreover, we cannot deny that Koreans have looser controls and a looser sense of ethics than the British. While the world is paying attention to us, we have not even started a serious discussion on life ethics.
The “participatory government” seems like a state corporation betting everything on cloning technology. I cannot help suspecting the philosophy of the key officials on science and technology.
Of course, a nation cannot be a developed country just with life ethics. However, if we dream of becoming a developed nation by compromising life ethics, the dream is nothing but a vain illusion.
About 220 years ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.” Kant’s idea applies to Korea’s reality as well. Ethics without science are empty and science without ethics is blind.

* The writer is a professor of medical humanities and social science at the College of Medicine of Ulsan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Koo Young-mo
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