November 25, 2005

THIS SCANDAL over Korean cloning expert Dr. Hwang Woo Suk and his lab seems like pretty small beer to me. Yes, you don’t want egg donations to be coerced, but the fact that junior researchers donated eggs doesn’t demonstrate coercion to me. There’s a long tradition of scientists participating in their own experiments, and I wonder if there isn’t a trace of sexism in the notion that junior female researchers must have been coerced. Would we say the same thing if they had been male donors who had donated sperm? (Sure, egg donation is more intrusive, but that’s not what the “ethics” rule is about). I don’t see anything wrong with paying for donations, either — the rule against it seems more like a self-protective cartel on behalf of scientists who’d rather get things for free than anything involving actual ethics.

At any rate, this seems more like a strike at Dr. Hwang than a serious ethics problem. (What’s a serious ethics problem? The Tuskeegee Syphilis experiments.)

I also wonder how much increasingly elaborate “ethics” rules, often created by non-scientists and often having nothing to do with actual ethics, are holding back scientific progress today, at considerable if hidden social cost. I wish the discussions of this case paid more attention to that question. More on this subject here.

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