Those who have followed the cloning debate will know that one of the problems faced by cloners is that they need eggs. Not the kind you get from chickens: the kind you get from women. Lots of eggs. In fact, vast quantities of eggs—if ever the mythical "therapeutic cloning" is to be made to work, every "one-on-one medication" would require the killing of an embryo to get its stem cells, and to get one suitable embryo, you need a lot of eggs.

Even to do basic cloning research, you need a lot of them. Dr. Hwang apparently used thousands. Unlike sperm, eggs are hard to get. Women produce very few, and what researchers (and test-tube baby clinics) like to do is give them drugs so that they "superovulate" and produce a whole bunch each time. It sounds simple, but the drugs are powerful hormones. They can have very nasty side effects. One of their side effects is death. You might be prepared to risk your life to have your own baby. Risking it to keep researchers in business is another question, even if they keep claiming they can come up with "cures."

Well, trust the U.K., outpost of the Brave New World, to take a lead. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, the government agency that also comes up with policy proposals, wants to change the rule that says women can only donate eggs for research if they are already producing them for infertility. The details are full of assurances and safeguards. But at the end of the day, the combination of cloning/stem cell hype and the fact that many women have relatives with nasty diseases whom they would love to help cure will lead them to risk their health and their lives to feed the demands of hungry researchers.

In reporting the news, the London Times candidly stated: "Egg donation, however, can cause fertility problems and requires women to take drugs to stimulate their ovaries. This carries a risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a complication that can, in rare cases, cause kidney damage and death."

The report goes on to suggest that only campaigners for "embryo rights" oppose this change, while "independent ethicists" support it: an interesting way to caricature the parties to this debate.

Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh …
The American collaborator of the infamous Korean cloning fraud, Dr. Hwang, is a distinguished scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. He, too, is now the focus of intense investigations, and his school has published the results of an internal inquiry about his role in what may prove to be the biggest science fraud of our generation. According to them, Dr. Schatten is worthy of censure. The Washington Post summarizes their results as follows:

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[T]he panel said Schatten "shirked" his responsibilities as a senior author on two seminal research papers he published with the Koreans; exhibited a "lack of oversight and critical judgment"; sought out the "media spotlight" when the research appeared to be going well and then made a "concerted and deliberate effort … to distance himself" when it became clear trouble was afoot; and was "disingenuous" with the university investigators who interviewed him.

What's more, he accepted $40,000 in fees from Dr. Hwang. Whether he will be disciplined by Pitt is up to his dean. Meanwhile, his former buddy Dr. Hwang has been fired by Seoul National University and is under police investigation for defrauding the government of his research funding.

At the same time, Dr. Hwang is reported to be suing Dr. Schatten for the U.S. patent rights to his work. This story gets more like daytime TV every day.

In the spirit of Soap Opera Digest, here's the summary so far:

• Dr. Hwang claimed to have cloned human embryos, used them to get stem cells, and then developed cell-lines that matched individual sick patients.

• He became the greatest scientist in his nation—named "chief scientist" by the government, showered with prizes, issued a stamp in his honor (showing him beside an empty wheelchair), and awarded free air travel forever.

• Something akin to hysteria spread: Korean women sign up on a website to give him their eggs—including as whole class of high school girls.

• Stories started spreading that he had gotten some of his eggs from junior lab researchers (a big ethics no-no).

• The staffer who told the story denied it.

• Dr. Hwang denied it.

• Dr. Schatten, Dr. Hwang's U.S. collaborator who co-signed his key scientific publication, left Korea and claimed the eggs had been obtained unethically.

• Stories spread of another researcher fleeing to the U.S., and of large sums of money being offered to buy the researcher's silence.

• A Korean TV news show started investigating, supporting the claims of fraud.

• The news show received death threats and was pulled from the air in a show of Korean national pride.

• Dr. Hwang admitted there were problems with the eggs and said he did not know about them, but resigned.

• The Korean government supported him and spoke of the need not to apply Western standards to Korean culture.

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• Doubts were cast on the experiments themselves, with vigorous investigation by journalists and scientists in Korea.

• The truth began to come out, though Dr. Hwang kept changing his story.

• Seoul National University conducted its own investigation, which revealed that no human embryos were ever cloned at all.

• Scientific journals took steps to "withdraw" the key articles they had published in what they thought was a great scoop, and stories circulated about the financial incentives and patent applications of Schatten and Dr. Hwang.

• Korean prosecutors raided the homes of Dr. Hwang, his relatives, and colleagues; started investigating him for fraud; and summon Schatten to return to Korea to be questioned.

• Now, the Korean National Bioethics Committee is taking another look and asking afresh whether they should allow cloning research at all.

We have noted the human dimension of this sorry tale, in an account in the Los Angeles Times of a pastor's son, confined to a wheelchair by an accident, whom Dr. Hwang personally promised to make walk again. Now comes the saddest of all these stories. According to a Reuters report, a Korean man has burned himself to death, dowsing himself with paint thinner after distributing fliers calling for support for Dr. Hwang. He left behind a listserv posting urging people to demonstrate in downtown Seoul. The report gives something of the background. The man is a truck driver. He is a member of an internet forum called "I love Hwang Woo-Suk" (Koreans use what we call last names first).

He never did, apparently, take part in the public demonstrations he was encouraging—and which continue. As the reporter puts it, "Thousands of Hwang's supporters have gathered in Seoul every weekend to hold candlelit protests since January."

I had to read this story several times to try and discover what they are protesting about. Because it has now been shown to every informed observer's satisfaction that Hwang is a liar and a fraud, that he played on the fears and hopes of the Korean people and of sick and scared people all over the world. It has been shown that he abused his authority over young women researchers to get their eggs, and got many more from women who were paid cash to take the major risks involved in "donating" theirs (which Korea has just made a crime).

But what are they protesting? Perhaps it is all too clear: They are protesting out of hope, out of a worked-up, hyped hope; protesting against reality; demonstrating the capacity of the human heart to engage in wishful thinking; and showing how easily a smart, deceitful man can make dupes of everyone from his own government to sick people and their loved ones to editors of the world's leading journals and, it would seem, to a famed American scientist who was only too willing to jump on his bandwagon (and his patents). These sorry protesters, and the terrible suicide, are the world's most powerful illustration of what happens when boosters of unethical science get their message out, and their web of fantasy overcomes the solid sadness of the real world.

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If the 21st century is really going to be the "biotech century," the world—from governments and editors down to patients and their relatives—needs to learn this lesson well.

And in Missouri, an army of one—and a lack of Talent
According to the Kansas City Star, Missouri GOP Senator Jim Talent has engaged in perhaps the strangest gyration of any politician on the cloning question. He is apparently under great pressure from GOP backers in the state who support the cloning ambitions of local universities and well-heeled foundations. At the same time, he is a beneficiary of strong political support from the pro-life movement in a state with one of the most vigorous and influential pro-life movements in the nation.

What he seems to have done is this: withdrawn his support for the bipartisan Brownback-Landrieu anti-cloning bill in the U.S. Senate, maintained that he is still opposed to all cloning, and enthused about the possibility of growing "embryonic" stem cells without the need to develop embryos at all. This option has been much discussed in the pro-life movement as well as the scientific community, and some believe it to be technically possible and ethically acceptable. But it is only acceptable if it really does not create embryos—not if it creates deformed, dying embryos. And if it does not create embryos, then the Brownback-Landrieu bill, which bans cloning, would not get in its way.

Senator Talent may have thought his move a smart one—taking some political heat off his back while at the same time enabling him to welcome ethical science. But he now has no political friends on the issue: He's an army of one, and the sooner he comes back into the fold, the better for the cause of ethical biotech—and his political career.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Life Matters columns include:

The State of the Human | President Bush sets out a vital agenda for ethics. (Feb. 2, 2006)
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Are You My Sperm Donor? | Plus: Another Hwang turn, more small surprises, and other life ethics stories. (Jan. 26, 2006)
Breeding Humans Like Rabbits? | From the frying pan into the fire. (Jan. 20, 2006)
The Prospects for 2006 | Deeper into the (Christian?) biotech century. (Jan. 9, 2006)
Peter Singer Meets Dr. Hwang | The ethics of the Brave New World. (Jan. 5, 2006)
Bethlehem's Bioethics | Christmas in the early 21st century. (Dec. 22, 2005)
A Common Cause for Our Common Humanity | Left and right come together in defense of us. (Dec. 14, 2005)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
Previous Life Matters Columns: