[OUTLOOK]Success could doom mankindThere is quite a disturbance astir over how Professor Hwang Woo-suk obtained the human ova used in his stem-cell research. A lot is concerned that we have defamed a researcher who is a national treasure and dealt a blow to his research over nothing much. The television network that aired the special program that prompted Dr. Hwang to admit his researchers had donated eggs is facing a major backlash. Internet users have already turned the professor into a hero. He has become a powerful icon, a power of this era where nobody can criticize him.
The controversy over whether human eggs were bought or collected from voluntary donors may be trivial. Should we regard a payment of 1.5 million won ($1,445) to a woman for her eggs as a donation while a more pricey reimbursement of 5 million won should constitute a purchase? What is so different from the teacher of famous Joseon Dynasty doctor Heo Joon, who gave his corpse to Mr. Heo to dissect, and Professor Hwang’s researchers who gave their eggs to his research?
To this debate is added a mix of commercialism and nationalism. People say if the stem-cell research is successful, it will mean economic value worth ten times or more than that generated by semiconductors. Professor Hwang himself imbued a sense of national pride when he said he wanted to stamp “Made in Korea” onto stem-cell research.
Responses to the international criticism of Dr. Hwang vary from rebuke “that the problem is with strict Western standards” in dealing with human ova to charges of “jealousy” or a “conspiracy” by powerful nations to take away a patent with tremendous value. What can be so wrong about using human eggs that healthy women release every month? Such sentiment underlies the rush by several hundreds of women who have come forward to donate their eggs for Dr. Hwang’s research. It’s a courageous act.
But what really is an embryonic stem-cell? It’s a cell of an embryo produced by taking the nucleus from a human egg and injecting it with the nucleus of a somatic cell. Opinions differ as to whether embryos should be regarded as a form of life.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Korea and the Korean Christian Bioethics Association have said embryos are forms of life and thereby they oppose their cloning. If a cloned embryo is implanted into a woman’s uterus, it will grow into a baby. That was how Dolly the cloned sheep and the cloned dog Snuppy were produced. Human cloning seems just steps away. The deciding factor in human cloning is the will of a scientist. No one can predict what lies in store when cloned humans appear on this earth.
Also, this kind of technology can develop into a bioengineered weapon of mass destruction. Einstein once proposed that U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt use atomic weapons to defeat the Nazis. Having belatedly realized atomic bombs could decimate mankind, he along with eight other scientists and Sir Bertrand Russell, issued a statement against nuclear warfare. Einstein said nuclear weapons threatened the existence of mankind, and urged governments of the world to avoid nuclear warfare.
Stem-cell research aims to cure rare and incurable diseases but, depending on its progress, the research could also mean the destruction of humanity. Stem cells are also easier to obtain than nuclear weapons.
Curiosity is a driving engine behind scientific research. Can we overcome this curiosity to clone humans? If human curiosity is combined with aspiration, and economic and political motivations, what would happen? Even Dr. Hwang said that his research and the need to produce an achievement blinded him. Are scientists not destined to rush headlong toward borders they are not supposed to cross? How are we to control what happens in a lab of several researchers? Without love for mankind, respect for human life and an internationally agreed set of ethical guidelines, research can screech ahead to ruin. That is why ethical sense in individual scientists is important. We cannot lightly dismiss Dr. Hwang’s lies, which have prompted a credibility crisis in ethics. Also, we cannot work to our singular standards, because the research has mankind’s entire future resting on it. We are at a juncture. Is our next step to be humanity’s doom or can we further develop mankind with the reason and wisdom God gave us? “After he drove the man [Adam and Eve] out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24).” The treatment and cure of rare and untreatable diseases are riddles for humans to solve. But the research can easily lead to the destruction of the human race. That is why we need strict ethics regarding human life and a concerted worldwide response.
* The writer is the chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk