Cloning Scientist Shows Why Women Should Know Biotechnology

Opinion   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Sep 5, 2011   |   10:33AM   |   Washington, DC

Most woman do not realize how valuable they are.  I am not talking about cooking, cleaning, raising the kids while bringing home the bacon.  I am talking about their biology.

Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, the disgraced South Korae cloning researcher who claimed he cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells, was convicted of embezzlement and was given a two-year suspended sentence.   In my estimation, one of Dr. Hwang’s major crimes was not his fraudulent paper, or his misappropriation of funds.  It was his exploitation of female researchers in his lab for their eggs.  Cloning takes eggs, lots of them.  Hwang blew through many as 2,000 eggs from as many as 120 women in his failed attempt to become the first to clone a human embryo.  Some of those eggs came from 2 junior researchers in Hwang’s own lab.  Donating eggs is not easy and has resulted in infertility and even death.  Whether female researchers in his lab were pressured to donate eggs or not, this was a huge breach of ethics.

Dr. Hwang’s exploitation of women for his failed cloning experiments reminds us all that cutting edge biotechnology, especially in the reproductive arena, is a woman’s issue.  Embryonic stem cell research and research cloning cannot continue without the precious eggs that reside in our ovaries.  In the future, reproductive cloning and genetic engineering of children cannot go anywhere without our wombs to gestate scientists’ latest creations.  All of these come with significant risks for the woman whose biology is so essential.

To retrieve the eggs needed in IVF and cloning a woman has to undergo a difficult and dangerous procedure.  First the woman is injected with drugs that stimulate her ovaries to produce multiple eggs.  This is called ovarian hyperstimulation.  The woman then undergoes surgery to retrieve the eggs produced.  Depending on which drugs are used, as many as 10% of woman will experience ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a serious complication that includes enlargement of the ovaries and can cause permanent infertility and even death.  OHSS may also cause blood clotting disorders and kidney damage.  Women who have undergone ovarian hyperstimulation may have increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Some would say that compensation is sufficient to insure that woman are not exploited by the biotechnology machine.  I disagree.  I call compensation for surrogacy and egg donation high-tech prostitution that preys on low income women.  Too many scientists view women as banks of harvestable biological material that they regrettably have to pay for. For example, Shavonne, who was asked to donate eggs to make embryos for embryonic stem cells research, told one such story to The Center for Bioethics and Culture:

I took a drug called Follistim to super ovulate me. The retrieval went fine, but not too long after that my stomach started to swell, and every time I leaned over I could feel my ovaries “plop.” I went to see the doctor, and he told me I had OHSS…nurse stuck a needle in my stomach, and it was a loud pop I could feel, like a balloon was popped. She stuck a bag on the end of the needle to drain the fluid, and the bag filled with 2 quarts in about 5 minutes. She had to quickly put another bag on and some of the fluid spilled on the floor. She filled the next bag too—in all, 4 quarts were drained out of my stomach…. The staff at the hospital would shake their head at me and took pity on me, because I was an egg donor and they said they saw this a lot…. It took a year and a half to clear up the medical bills. My menstrual cycles are few and far between. I was pregnant in 2008, but I lost the baby. I hope to have children some day, and every time I do have a period, I get really excited because I rarely have them anymore.

Dr. Sam Wood of Stemagen Corp, the California company that cloned human embryos said, a few years ago, that he wants to pay women to harvest their eggs. He cries that he can’t get them any other way. Forget about the health risks to young women, Dr. Wood wants the eggs to continue to pursue therapeutic cloning:

“Give us the eggs. If we don’t succeed, then be critical,” said Wood. “You have to give people the tools that are required to determine whether the methodology will work.”

Once again the ends justify the means, the only problem is that he is talking about young women putting their fertility and health at risk to supply him with raw material for his cloning experiments.

I think some men just do not understand that donating eggs is not like donating sperm.  I think if embryonic stem cell research and cloning required the harvesting of sperm cells directly from the testicles with hormone injections and needles, they would likely still be science fiction.

One of my favorite quotes on cloning is this one from Dr. Gregory Pence, bioethicist from the University of Alabama, where he nonchalantly writes about what it would take to make reproductive cloning a reality:

If the primary moral objection to reproductive cloning is that it will likely result in genetic error in reprogramming, then of course we want research to prevent that kind of problem.  But how do we do that?  The best way is to see how cloned embryos develop and to study them, gestating them in female chimpanzees, artificial wombs, or human volunteers, then aborting them to see which are normal and which are not, then experimenting to see how to create only normally developing embryos/fetuses.

Dr. Pence those “human volunteers” are real women who would be putting their own fertility and mental and physical health at risk by not only carrying a cloned fetus, but also going through an elective abortion in the name of science.  Keep in mind that New Zealand researchers halted their animals cloning research, in part because of the deaths of the gestating mothers.

It is exactly the egg and embryo problem that has caused some stem cell researchers to abandon embryonic stem cell research and cloning altogether and work with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) instead.  IPS cells require no embryos or eggs and still behave like embryonic stem cells.  These iPS cells would also be a genetic match to the patient so there would be no need for cloning.

This is why should women care about biotechnology.  Because it is their bodies that will be exploited to make some of the visions of scientists come to fruition.  If we do not provide the raw materials, embryonic stem cell research and cloning cannot proceed and more alternatives like iPS cells will be found.  Women need to stand up and say, “Find another way.” Some have already.  Hand Off Our Ovaries, of which I am a member, is a group of pro-choice and pro-life women and men who realize how advances in biotechnology will exploit vulnerable women.

Do your daughters a favor.  Teach them about biotechnology, the good and the bad.  Make sure they understand how valuable their bodies are.  Teach them how egg donation and surrogacy work and the risks involved.  Make sure they understand how not to fall victim to exploitation in the Brave New World.