[OUTLOOK]Need to create Eastern ethicsThe myth created around Professor Hwang Woo-suk has aroused a major controversy because of the way he obtained human eggs used for his stem-cell research. This was a disaster I forewarned about in a previous column in the JoongAng Ilbo. The milk is spilt, however, and the South Korean science community has paid a high price for its entry to the advanced community of world-class science. It’s time that we give long and serious thought to ways of reclaiming our eclipsed sense of ethics and to the future steps we need to take. The most pressing issue at hand is how to manage the World Stem Cell Hub. The government is acting quickly, calling emergency meetings and all, but concerns persist.
In a way, it was premature for South Korea to rush to open the World Stem Cell Hub for it could easily have become a trap to bog down Korean life science. Giving more food to that thought are the recent actions of Professor Gerald Schatten. Even if any consideration of personal gain, such as a stake in the stem-cell patent, is put aside, I can conjure up four scenarios on what may have prompted Professor Schatten to sever his cooperation with Dr. Hwang.
The first scenario is that by encouraging South Korea to establish the World Stem Cell Hub, Dr. Schatten could mitigate the strong sentiment against stem-cell research in the United States. The second scenario posits that he would have surely witnessed, close at hand, how the South Korean stem-cell research was conducted and learned certain skills. Thirdly, by ending his partnership with South Korea because of justifiable reasons, he could lay on the South Korean life sciences the entire blame for the ethical lapse. Fourthly, he would not have much to lose even if he severed ties with World Stem Cell Hub for a while. Because even if stem cells are produced and stored in the bank, they would not have applicability without the help of Dr. Schatten and the American life sciences community. It may be that only the American bio-science community has the technology and the basic scientific infrastructure to develop stem cell-based treatments for patients. Also, the United States is expected to be biggest potential market for such expensive life science technology, once it becomes available.
South Korea should have given serious thought to that fourth scenario. As things stand now, the onus of having committed an ethical lapse falls squarely on South Korea, even if the stem cell bank proves successful. And it may be the country with the larger potential market and the ability to produce end-goods using the stem-cell research technology that will truly benefit, while South Korea may well be reduced to a raw materials (stem cells) supplier. Just like that, South Korea could become subjugated, in a newly-formed world market structure, to the superpower’s life sciences industry. We could find ourselves repeating our past industrialization strategy, where we blindly accepted polluting industries at the expense of hurting our own environment. In this case, however, we would be allowing anti-life industries to make inroads at the expense of destroying life. There are concerns that the world stem-cell bank could end up laundering the ethical lapses of advanced industrial countries.
I sincerely hope these scenarios are, at worst, fruits of my fertile imagination and born of vague fears and I also truly want to believe in Dr. Schatten’s honesty as a scientist. Nevertheless, we hear the foreign press describing Dr. Hwang as being caught in the “dog house.”
Not all is despair, however, and we need strategy and wisdom to avoid this trap. Our scientists have already crossed the Rubicon in life science where they were the first in the world to clone human embryos. They hurried but they alone should not be called into account. We should come up with a social system to prevent scientists from falling into any more traps. They have confessed and asked for forgiveness, so we have to give them a chance to start anew.
Equally, we need a shift in our thinking. The existing global ethical standards may be outmoded in this era of cloned human embryos. Rather than trying to align with an outdated standard, we should found new ethical guidelines and then persuade the world to follow them.
The development of science and ethics, the two axes of human development, must be pursued simultaneously. That is why South Korean life sciences should communicate more deeply with liberal studies and, in particular, religious studies. We should stop following the West’s limited ethical viewpoint on life, and creatively come up with a new global standard that is based on the East’s thoughts on life. We’ve shocked the world with a storm of achievement in life science; we need to follow it up by adding in creative ethical standards of our own regarding life.
* The writer is a professor of theology at Kangnam University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Heup-young