[OUTLOOK]Place blame where it belongsHeo Jun, a famous doctor of the Joseon Dynasty, is the author of “Dongeuibogam,” a comprehensive handbook on oriental medicine. That enduring masterpiece begins with “shinhyeongjangbudo,” a detailed depiction of human anatomy. How was Dr. Heo able to draw anatomy? It’s not difficult to figure out. When traveling through the Damyang and Haenam regions in Korea, in his quest to study the human body, he most likely found autopsy a temptation difficult to resist. Rumor has it that Heo Jun went deep into the mountains, dissecting human bodies to look at their insides. Where did he get the corpses? Were they donors, and did he seek consent? These questions should not even have been murmured in a Confucian society, which sanctifies dead bodies. Had he been discovered, Heo Jun would have been executed. Fortune smiled on him and his trespasses, allowing him to complete one of the greatest scientific achievements in Korean history.
It would be illogical to expect such fortune in this high-tech “Star Wars” 21st century, but I am probably not the only one hoping the honest confession by Roh Sung-il of MizMedi Hospital will put out the sparks of suspicion regarding Professor Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research. People may even be asking themselves why Hwang and his team should follow the complex set of international regulations regarding bio-science.
Let’s take another example, child labor, which is illegal. Hats, shirts and tapestry produced illegally by child laborers are sold, however, without resistance, in advanced industrial markets. A child is a far more advanced human entity than an embryonic cell. Everywhere around us, there are abundant goods produced through illegal and exploitative labor. Why should the once-in-a-century groundbreaking work of Professor Hwang Woo-suk be dogged by the backward act of purchasing human eggs?
We, however, live in the cold real world. The international community is likely to regard Roh Sung-il’s confession as a person-to-person appeal. Things are not likely to change for the better should Professor Hwang come forward to clear things up. Professor Hwang was not involved in the purchasing of human eggs and that was not his main job.
Most Korean people, including myself, fully understand the trials Professor Hwang would have faced early on in his stem cell research. In 2002, when he was starting his stem-cell research, there were no maps or road signs to guide him.
The caravans of the middle ages that pioneered the Silk Road had stars to rely on, but for scientists like Dr. Hwang, who work at the frontiers of science verging on the unknown, there was not even dim moonlight to guide him. He often got lost and demoralized. Uncountable resignations and painful mistakes that cut to the bone are often precursors to success stories. Facing a situation where there was no elaborate management system for obtaining human ova, a researcher would have had to rely on existing practices and his or her common sense. What scientist would recklessly go ahead with research, knowing it went against international regulations? Professor Hwang probably has his entire concern focused on the novelty of stem cells that grow from embryos. We empathize with Professor Hwang, when he himself cautions against any mistakes that may have unconsciously been committed and, with his simple smile, expresses awe at human life.
Nevertheless, a problem exists. That is just how we should reduce the gap between the “advanced demands” of journals such as “Science” and “Nature” that Hwang and his team demonstrate they committed no ethical breaches in obtaining human eggs and the “backward system and environment” of South Korea.
At this point, we must understand that the pressure from the international community is not for Professor Hwang to bear alone or that only he should solve the problem at hand. The pressure coming from the international community targets none other than the irresponsibility of Korean society and the negligence on the part of the government for letting Dr. Hwang go at this ground-breaking work alone. The press, in its pursuit of facts-based reporting, is digging up provocative content that threatens to degrade the precious achievements made in stem-cell research into a mere credit-card debt mentality. The gist of the problem is not whether Professor Hwang and his team used eggs sold by the destitute.
It is time to give serious thought as to whether we as a nation did enough to provide the necessary environment and policies for a world-class scientist to carry over into his work. Early pioneers are likely to pay their dues, but in this case, the government should be the one to pay up.
The government should come forward and admit that an honest mistake was made because of our backward system and regulations. That’s the best solution. We need to remind ourselves it was only in this year that South Korea’s life ethics law went into effect.
* The writer is professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Song Ho-keun