The Devil’s Calculus

On May 12, Hwang Woo-suk, the “disgraced cloning scientist,” was indicted on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and ethics violations. The scientific community has rightly distanced itself from Hwang over his falsification of data. But there is still one thing that his efforts and much of the biotech industry share in common: a utilitarian disregard for the dignity and sanctity of human life. Prosecutors charge that Hwang used falsified data showing cloning success to defraud investors of at least $2 million. However, the real outrage lies in how Hwang obtained the eggs for the research whose results he falsified. The media referred to “junior researchers” having “donated” their eggs. In this case donated is a euphemism, suggesting a voluntary transaction between equals—not the case here. For starters, there are reports that Hwang and his senior associates “applied pressure to team members” to donate their eggs. One researcher reportedly told Hwang she wouldn’t do it, to which he replied, “Why not?” She then went through the procedure “out of worry” for her professional prospects. Even without overt pressure, junior researchers are, as the New York Times put it, in a “dependent relationship” with their superiors—thus, vulnerable. Especially is this true “in the strict hierarchy of a scientific laboratory in a Confucian[-influenced] society like South Korea,” where “junior members often feel great pressure to please their superiors.” Hwang’s taking advantage of his researchers is emblematic of efforts to do anything to clone human beings and to do embryonic stem-cell research. The physical differences between adult women and human embryos should not obscure the utilitarian calculus involved. Neither should it matter that Hwang was, by all accounts, an egomaniac, while other researchers are depicted as altruistic visionaries. The clear point is that those least able to resist—whether subordinate researchers or human embryos—are expected to sacrifice themselves for some “greater good.” This is the issue in a measure pending in Congress to allow federally funded research on embryonic stem-cells obtained from frozen embryos. The treatment of these embryos, who were created for in vitro fertilization, represents utilitarian logic at its “finest.” They were abandoned when they no longer served their original purpose. So now we can destroy them to fulfill a new purpose. The justification for this proposal amounts to: “They shouldn’t go to waste.” Sadly, in a culture shaped by utilitarianism such as ours, when Christians insist that human life—at any stage—is not a “waste,” we are labeled fanatics. When we argue that “progress,” however defined, should not be purchased at the expense of the most vulnerable among us, we are made out as “enemies of the future.” It does not matter that, to date, no treatments or cures have come from embryonic stem-cell research. It’s our insistence on the sanctity and dignity of the human person that offends the prophets of progress. But that insistence is the only reliable protection against the abuses that took place in Hwang’s laboratory. In a world where some human life is expendable for the “greater good,” there is nothing that protects the weak or, for that matter, protects any of us. This is part five in the “War on the Weak” series.


Chuck Colson


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