Korean stem cell lie stirs up ethical debate

The flap highlights a dilemma: Is it wrong to pay women to donate eggs?

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted Dec. 19, 2005

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A leading South Korean stem cell researcher's admission that he lied for more than two years about how his lab acquired human oocytes has halted a fledgling global collaboration and tossed new concerns into the U.S. ethical debate over stem cell research.

Hwang Woo-Suk, PhD -- a South Korean national hero for leading the research team that in May was the world's first to successfully clone a human embryo -- said last month that during a 2002-03 human egg-cell shortage his lab accepted eggs from two junior scientists and about 20 other women who each were paid the Korean equivalent of $1,400. Dr. Hwang said he wasn't aware of the questionable egg donations when they were made, and that once he found out he lied in order to protect the donors.

It is an internationally accepted research principle that junior scientists should not be allowed to donate eggs for fear that they could be pressured into doing so by superiors. Dr. Hwang's lab also had a policy barring payments to egg donors, and he had previously denied that any such payments were made. In January, South Korea passed a law banning any commerce in human ova. After the controversy, more than 1,000 women pledged their eggs for research.

Aside from putting the brakes on a fledgling U.S.-South Korean stem cell research collaboration, the South Korean egg-donation scandal has highlighted an issue that's largely flown under the radar in the U.S. ethical debate: Is compensating egg donors wrong?

Convincing women to donate eggs, as fertility clinics have long known, is difficult because the process is time-consuming, invasive and carries risks.

Hormonal treatments can result in ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which has led to two deaths in the United Kingdom in the last six months, according to an article in The Nation authored by Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, and Emily Galpern, MPH.

Galpern and Dr. Darnovsky are analysts at the pro-abortion rights Center for Genetics and Society, in Oakland, Calif. Their views are representative of a number of liberal groups that favor new biotechnologies but believe paying women for their eggs is wrong.

"Women whose eggs are used for research are the first guinea pigs of scientists using human cloning techniques for stem cell research," Dr. Darnovsky and Galpern wrote.

The authors said they object to "creating a market for human eggs that may induce young and low-income women to subject themselves to those risks in return for payment," they wrote.

"We need to look beyond the politics of embryos and focus attention on the well-being of women, conducting this important research with integrity."

On similar grounds, the National Academies of Science in April issued guidelines on stem cell research advising that egg donors should only be reimbursed for expenses such as taxi fares and child-care. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine has said fertility clinics should pay donors no more than $5,000, though many offer more.

Physicians who oppose stem cell research because they believe it destroys human life said the South Korea scandal only deepens their objections.

"The whole problem with human cloning is where do we get the eggs from?" said Dr. Andrew Fergusson, a British family physician who is now president of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in Bannockburn, Ill. "We're going to be getting eggs from the poor and disadvantaged. This is not just about little blobs of tissue and getting cures perhaps 20 years down the line."

Glenn McGee, PhD, director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute based at the Albany Medical College in New York, said in an e-mail that "payments should be indexed against the income of prospective participants, not against the magic advertising formula that sets a dollar-figure threshold at which you can get a willing seller."

Poor women would get less money, helping avoid the ethical dilemma of inducing poor women to undertake risks that the better-off would not, Dr. McGee said.

But Ronald M. Bailey, author of Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution, said that is condescending. "You're basically saying, 'Poor dears, you don't know how to value the risks involved,' " he said. "The proper way to think of a higher payment is that it is actually compensating people for taking those risks."

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