After being dogged for months about the source of the women’s eggs he used to create the first human cloned embryo, the South Korean veterinarian Hwang Woo-suk, apologized Thursday and stepped down as director of The World Stem Cell Hub, an international network of fertility clinics recently established by Hwang to create stem cell lines for research. The ethical violation that he admitted to and resigned because of is that he did not tell the truth about the source of his eggs. In 2004 when pressed he told Nature magazine that his own researchers, including graduate students, did not donate their eggs. But they did, even though they did so under false names and apparently without his knowledge. And he said that no woman was paid to donate eggs. But they were. The Washington Post reports that Roh Sung Il, head of Seoul-based MizMedi Women's Hospital, admitted that he had paid about $1,447 each to 20 women to gather human eggs for Hwang's research. Payment for eggs was not illegal in 2003, but it was banned last January by South Korean law. Talking to the BBC, Dr Hwang explained why standards may have slipped, “We needed a lot of ova [eggs] for the research but there were not enough ova around.” Dr. Hwang himself has published research on a method that would allow stem cell lines from human cloned embryos to be created using 17 women’s eggs instead of the 242 it first took.
South Korea treats Dr. Hwang as a national hero and today in the Korean Times an editorial urges that even though his stem cells were procured unethically, this should not diminish the “remarkable achievement” of their native son. In addition to creating the first human embryo clone, last August he unveiled Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog.
Besides lying, ethical issues in this case include the specter of coercion involved in the harvesting of eggs from junior researchers and graduate students thus violating the ethical necessity of donations being given with informed voluntary consent (with coercion the voluntariness condition is breeched). And the problem of the commodification of women emerges in the act of exchanging ova for money.