[VIEWPOINT]Give Hwang another chanceLast year, I was asked for an interview by Nature, a British science journal. A reporter at Nature planned to visit and stay in South Korea for weeks and meet researchers as well as domestic scholars and media figures, including myself.
A few months later, I received by e-mail an interview request from a professor at a medical college in Britain. In preparation for my poor English, he said he could even be accompanied by a professional interpreter. Why were people in Britain, which claims to be an advanced country, taking so much interest in a small country on the borders of the world?
Their intentions were clear. They were more curious about the source of the egg cells used by researcher Hwang Woo-suk than in his stem cell achievements. On the surface, they talked of bioethics, but at heart they obviously had the intention of finding fault with Professor Hwang and his research team. I declined the interview but was worried inside. Given the backward domestic environment for research ethics at that time, I was concerned about whether fault would be found with Dr. Hwang’s research. Now, my concern has become reality.
The reporter at Nature who tried to interview me recently appeared on a television program. He openly said he was more interested in the procedure of Professor Hwang’s obtaining egg cells than his research capability. His derisive intention was obvious ― that Professor Hwang’s research achievements, in which we take such pride, are nothing if they derive from unethically-acquired egg cells.
His remarks implied that if only researchers in his country could obtain enough human ova, they could achieve the same results. I felt crushed as I watched the program. Even if there was an ethical defect in Professor Hwang’s research process, I wondered whether exposing the problem on air was the best solution.
Let’s take a look at the female researchers’ donation of egg cells first of all. Bioethics prohibits donations from junior researchers for fear of seniors’ exercising tacit pressure on them. But the exceptional situation should be acknowledged also. Professor Hwang and his team devoted themselves to their research, even giving up their vacations.
The researchers took turns to watch the lab overnight lest cloned animals be miscarried. Taking this passion into consideration, there exist possibilities that female researchers volunteered to donate their egg cells. Their acknowledgement of their donations to the reporter at Nature may have come from their naivete. They overlooked the fact that his intention was to attack them from behind. On the other hand, it could have been possible they were confident they had nothing on their consciences.
The same goes for buying egg cells. Considering the situation in the United States where the price of egg cells is tens of thousands of dollars, 1.5 million won could be interpreted as a token of appreciation in the Orient for donors, covering such things as traffic expenses, rather than a purchase. In other words, the strict word for word application of international standards of bioethics to Professor Hwang’s stem cell research is unfair in a way.
But the milk has already been spilt. It seems very difficult for Professor Hwang’s research team to persuade the international academic community and press of their innocent intentions. It is true that on the surface, his team violated global standards. His academic accomplishment may get recognition but he could lose his honor, becoming known as an unethical scholar. The establishment of his stem cell hub could also come to nothing. It is a crisis on all sides.
This stem cell research is the first opportunity for the Korean nation to contribute to mankind since its foundation five thousand years ago. The fruit cannot be taken away by others after we planted the seeds. We should unite our divided national opinion first. Now is the time to encourage Professor Hwang and his research team rather than criticizing them on ethical issues.
Bioethical aspects of their research should be complemented, but we should not make the cure worse than the illness. We should give them another chance. Through the public movement of egg cell donations, we should discomfort the overseas press, which examines with suspicion even the fact of extracting egg cells from a mere 16 women.
I hope Professor Hwang and his team will make every effort to develop treatments for the currently incurable diseases as soon as possible. This is the only way to regain Korea’s position, which has plummeted very low.
* The writer is a staff writer on medicine of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Hong Huie-gul