|Members of woman rights groups hold a press conference to call on the government to adopt stricter regulations on egg donations and thoroughly investigate Prof. Hwang Woo-suk’s use of donated ova for his stem cell research, at the Korea Green Foundation in central Seoul on Jan. 4.|
Voices are getting louder over the revision of the bioethics law amid allegations that female researchers of Prof. Hwang Woo-suk's team were forced to donate their ova for stem cell experiments.
Prof. Chung Myung-hee, head of the Seoul National University (SNU) panel investigating Hwang's fabrication of research data, announced Tuesday that a total of 2,061 eggs from 129 females were collected from four hospitals and provided to his team for three years from November 2002.
The key question is whether Hwang's team has violated the bioethics law that took effect in January last year.
The law forbids the trade of sperm and ova for commercial purposes. It stipulates that those offering ovum for a commercial purpose are subject to prison terms of up to three years and those arranging the illegal trade may face imprisonment of up to two years.
In short, if egg-donation takes place voluntarily without commercial benefits, it is not punishable. In addition, those who were involved even in commercial ova trading that took place before 2005 are not subject to any punishment.
Cloning scientist Hwang admitted late last year that his lab's two female researchers donated their eggs in 2003 ``voluntarily for the success of the research by sacrificing themselves.''
After Hwang's confession, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that the donations weren't in violation of ethics guidelines because they were made voluntarily.
The ministry also claimed that there has been ``no violation of ethics guidelines'' because the scientists' egg donations were neither ``coerced or coaxed'' nor ``aimed at making profits.''
The problem, however, lies in another article of the law which states that everyone, involved in life science technology, is entitled to make a decision after being fully informed of the risk in his or her donation.
In other words, if a woman would like to donate her eggs, she should be informed about the risks of the donation and possible side effects.
However, the current bioethics law doesn't have any clear-cut regulation of what to do when donors' rights are violated. This means that even if donors are not fully aware of the danger of egg-donation, authorities will have difficulty punishing the violators.
In fact, the production of ovum en masse is dangerous for donors since the donors are required to take hormone injections before egg retrieval.
Experts said that up to 10 percent of women, who undergo such ovarian stimulation to procure eggs, experience severe after-effects including infertility or death.
The SNU panel said in the final report that only 12 out of 84 egg-donors from the Seoul-based MezMedi Hospital were ``pure voluntary donors,'' raising ethical suspicions about the process of egg-donation.
The panel also said that the Hanyang University Hospital, MezMedi Hospital and Hanna Women's Hospital, three of the four medical institutions which provided eggs to Hwang's team, used a simplified egg-donation form that lacks a warning about the risk of egg-donations.
Recognizing the problem, the health ministry is considering amending some articles of the bioethics law.
``Some loopholes of the law have been exposed through the stem cell scandal. But considering the fact that the law took effect only a year ago, it cannot be perfect. Thus, we will take necessary measures about the law, including revising it,'' said a ministry official.
Some women civic groups also call for stricter regulations on the use of ova for research purposes, saying that the law is somewhat ``loose.''
``The law doesn't cover a wide range of issues concerning ova-donation. It should include the guaranteeing of donors' rights, and the management of unused eggs after research,'' said You Kyung-hee, a representative of Korea's Womenlink.
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