All Your Eggs Are Belong to Us


In today's Washington Post, Robert P. George and Reason science panel participant Eric Cohen make a case for "Stem Cells Without Moral Corruption." Superficially, they're arguing for alternatives to therapeutic cloning, but in practice, they're demanding that the world simply wait for stem cells while alternatives are sought. Little of the argument focuses on embryos. Instead, we get a treatise on the moral failings of any and all who would move forward, tacked onto a revised history of the misadventures of South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk:

Hwang's violation involved the exploitation of women, who undergo a risky and unpleasant procedure—first, ovarian hyperstimulation, then the insertion of a needle into their ovaries to procure the wanted oocytes—with no medical benefit to themselves. In the attempt to produce a single cloned embryo, thousands of eggs were harvested and used as raw materials.

In South Korea, the buying and selling of eggs was done in the shadows, covered up by false documents and brazen lies. This would never happen in America, researchers assure us. But as time goes on, rather than calling research cloning itself into question, some will call the ethical limits into question: Why not pay women for their eggs? Why not induce poor women to profit by risking their health? Of course, no responsible doctor could advise his patient to undergo such a procedure. But perhaps we will simply "update" basic medical ethics as well, and decide that the "good of mankind" trumps the good of individual patients.

Hwang should not have accepted ova from volunteers in his office (and he claims not to have known their identities at the time), but it's somewhat hyperbolic to say his research "involved the exploitation of women" in the total absence of evidence that anyone was coerced. That "the buying of selling of eggs was done in the shadows" seems pretty dark unless you know that paying for eggs was perfectly legal in South Korea at the time, and the lies—excuse me, "brazen lies"—Cohen and George are talking about were told to Hwang, who seems to have thought the eggs were donated rather than sold.

What's the problem with selling eggs? As Cohen and George put it, researchers would thereby "induce poor women to profit by risking their health." This is a weird argument coming from a pair of social conservatives. Should we also prevent poor men from taking profit from construction work? Police work? The military? It's all so risky—far more so than giving eggs. Cohen and George, I'm guessing, would never concede that poor men should be shielded from physical danger in the pursuit of legal profit: When men assume risk, it's honorable. When women do, it's exploitative.

At the same time, Cohen and George claim to be standing up for the "individual patient," boldly opposing ideologues who would trumpet "the good of mankind." Which patients are they standing up for, exactly? Everything about this argument rejects individual autonomy, from the conflation of Hwang Woo Suk with all researchers, to the suggestion that the moral integrity of an entire society is at stake. If Cohen and George somehow believe that they're defending the patient as individual, they must also believe that individuals are incapable of making decisions, and therefore require some sort of collective decision making apparatus (preferably headed by Cohen and George). Which, in the case of women at least, appears to be their position.