Joint press conference to urge investigation of procurement of ova
New facts have been disclosed about the number of ova used in Dr. Hwang Woo-suk's questionable research, and possible coercion of female junior researchers to donate eggs, along with the side effects of the operation to remove them. Women's groups have raised these issues, demanding more information and clarity on accusations of his illegal use of human ova. Yet the focus of both the investigation and press coverage is on whether there is in fact original technology for stem cell production, and if his paper published in the journal “Science” in 2004 was fabricated, leaving the ova-related issues as secondary. This is an example of the unethical, inhumane attitude that considers women's body as an offering to be given for the good of a nation. Women's right to control their bodies has been totally forgotten by the government, scientists and the media, and being lost as the story progresses.
We women are outraged at the notion that women's bodies can be sacrificed for the country and for technological development. We demand a thorough investigation into suspicions surrounding the ova and a more general, government-level reconsideration of all experiments with cloning, as these are bound to raise ethical problems.
First, the government should examine the exact number of eggs involved and how they were obtained, as well as which institution or agencies helped with this aspect of the research project.
On Jan. 1, 2006, a source in the National Bioethics Committee revealed that as many as 1,656 eggs may have been used by Hwang's research team. The television show 'PD notebook', aired on Jan. 3, reported that despite Hwang's claim that only 427 eggs were used for his papers in 2004 and 2005, a total of 1,620 eggs were actually procured. For the study reported in the 2004 paper 423 eggs were used, for that in 2005 around a thousand from MizMedi hospital and another 200 from the Hanna hospital. The show went on to present shocking testimony that Hwang's team had tried to buy ova from ten infertile couples in Hanna hospital.
We deplore the fact that this information has been covered up. The Ministry of Health and Welfare, which is in charge of supervising stem cell research and ova management since the Bioethics and Safety Law took effect in January 2005, has sat idly by. When the issue was first raised in November 2005, it only announced that there had been no legal violation in Hwang's ova procurement. Although it is late, the government should immediately form a committee to objectively investigate the matter and prosecute any wrongdoers, not to mention reprimanding the authorities.
Secondly, there should be a thorough investigation into whether the junior researchers were forced to donate eggs.
On Jan. 1 a source from the National Bioethics Committee said that female researchers in Hwang's team may have had to sign an agreement stating that they were offering their eggs. Some news programs and the above mentioned 'PD notebook' also claimed that the women were pressured into donating ova for fear of being removed from the list of credits on the paper or being otherwise put at a disadvantage. If this is true, it is a grave violation of the Declaration of Helsinki’s ethical principles and a crime against all female researchers in field of bioengineering.
Thirdly, the government should examine the side effects of operations conducted to remove eggs, and compensate the donors.
Removing ova requires
a surgical procedure that may cause stomach pain, infertility and
even, in rare cases, death. According to one media source nearly twenty
percent of the donors have since seen doctors for operation-related
symptoms, and one woman in particular even had to quit her job because
of OHSS (Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome). Ignoring frequent questioning
by women's groups about the safety of ovulation induction procedures,
the government neglected its duty to protect people's health and lives
to achieve stem cell technology. Article 38 of the Bioethics and Safety
Law states that the Health and Welfare minister can stop research
or take another measures when there is a possibility that it endangers
people's safety or is unethical. Yet it is doubtful that the minister
ever exercised this power or performed his duty to oversee bioengineering
research. Thus the need for government compensation, as OHSS and other
related illnesses are the results of the authorities' negligence.
Even with the Bioethics and Safety Law, the government is still not able to determine the exact number of ova used in Hwang's research, not to mention the number of left-over eggs and embryos in infertility facilities. To prevent another case of sloppy supervision, we suggest revision of the Bioethics and Safety Law and legislation to regulate artificial fertilization. Furthermore, there should be a social authority to protect women's health and rights in bioengineering and related experiments.
The only way to prevent similar incidents is to have the investigation panel at Seoul National University, the National Bioethics Committee and the government clarify all accusations and suspicions surrounding Hwang's researches and come up with a management system to prevent unauthorized use of ova. Disciplining the responsible agencies and persons should not be forgotten, either. We women will work in unity until this matter is cleared up, the responsible are punished and proper measures are taken to promote women's health and oppose the idea that women's bodies and their eggs can be used with impunity for the good of the country.
Our demands are:
1) the government and the prosecution should find out exactly how many donors and eggs were involved in Hwang's research, and how and by whom they were procured.
2) the ministry of Health and Welfare and the National Bioethics Committee should apologize and take responsibility for this situation.
3) the government should prosecute those, if there are any, who removed or traded ova illegally.
4) the government should take urgent measures to ensure transparency in ova/embryo management as well as better protection of women.
5) the government should look into the side effects of ova-removal procedures and compensate the donors.
6) the cloning of embryos cannot ignore ethics and human rights issues. The government should not just withdraw its financial support for Hwang's research but should also reconsider all its policies on cloning. National-level discussions should direct bioengineering researches.
January 4, 2006