The debate about stem cell research has focused for years on the moral status of the human embryo, largely overlooking the welfare of women who will provide eggs to produce those embryos. But that situation is changing. The recent revelations about ethical breaches in obtaining eggs for research in Korea have brought attention to the implications for women's health and the potential commodification of their eggs.
The current controversy surrounds Hwang Woo-suk, the South Korean researcher who achieved celebrity status after creating the world's first cloned human embryos in 2004. Last month, Hwang announced the establishment of the World Stem Cell Foundation with great fanfare, accompanied by high international interest. Last week, however, Hwang resigned from his position as head of the foundation after admitting that his lab had received eggs both from women who had been paid and from two junior researchers on his team.
Under widely accepted international guidelines, scientists do not conduct research on human subjects who are in a dependent relationship with them, in order to avoid exploitation. While Hwang did not break any laws in using eggs from junior researchers on his team, he clearly violated international standards. In addition, Hwang subsequently denied the source of the eggs when asked about this by journalists and other researchers.
The procurement of eggs for Hwang's cloning research has been further clouded by the admission that a key member of his team, Roh Sung-il, paid women the equivalent of $1,400 out of his own pocket for their eggs. Korean television broadcast interviews with three of the women who provided eggs. All three said they had been in dire financial situations, and two stated they had not been informed about the potential risks posed by the egg retrieval process. Roh's admission came one week after he conceded to knowingly using illegally traded eggs to perform artificial insemination for infertile couples. Ten women and four egg brokers were arrested in that controversy for violating a new South Korean law that prohibits commercial trade in eggs or sperm and carries a fine of several years in prison.
Just before the flurry of exposures in mid-November, cloning researcher Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh abruptly withdrew from a twenty-month partnership with Hwang. Schatten said he had received new information that led him to realize that Hwang had improperly obtained eggs for research.
The charges of ethical and legal violations bring attention to the significant risks of the drugs and procedures used for egg extraction, and to the prospect of creating a market for human eggs that may induce young and low-income women to subject themselves to those risks in return for payment. Many observers saw the World Stem Cell Foundation as an effort to make an end run around the laws that South Korea and some other countries – though not the United States – have put in place to regulate stem cell research.
The World Stem Cell Foundation had been set to begin recruiting women to provide fresh eggs for its work through the San Francisco-based Pacific Fertility Center. After learning of the ethical breaches, PFC backed out of the deal. "With Dr. Schatten's withdrawal, it is impossible for us to establish the ethics of the whole thing," said PFC medical director Philip Chenette.
The current situation in South Korea is emblematic of unresolved issues surrounding egg extraction wherever it is practiced. Some women's health advocates and public-interest groups have been raising concerns about the potential for exploitation of young or low-income women if researchers offer payments for eggs. Last April, a committee set up by the National Academies of Sciences agreed, and recommended that payments be limited to reimbursement for direct expenses like transportation and childcare.