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Scientific fraud and the silence that followed

By GREG SCHLEPPENBACH
LIFE INSIGHT

            South Korean veterinarian Woo-Suk Hwang was catapulted into international fame over the last couple of years because of his claim to have created the first cloned human embryos and embryonic stem cell line, and then using this technique to create 11 patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines. His research, which involved the production and destruction of numerous human embryos, was featured in the prestigious journal Science.

            The secular media featured Hwang's alleged breakthroughs with sensational front page prominence. President Bush and others who oppose and restrict the intentional destruction of embryonic human beings were blamed for causing the United States to fall behind the South Koreans in this area of science.

            Then, in late December 2005, Hwang's world imploded when it was discovered that his human cloning research was a complete fraud. The first sign of trouble was when his American partner resigned after learning that Hwang paid and even coerced some women for their eggs rather than obtaining them as donations. Shortly thereafter, investigations revealed that Hwang had fabricated most of his research; he had not cloned a human embryo and hadn't produced embryonic stem cell lines at all.

            In comparison to the sensationalistic and prominent reactions by the media and academia to Hwang's original claims, their response to one of the worst cases of science fraud in recent history has been relative silence. Oh sure, there has been some coverage of the scandal, but any suggestion that it has been proportionate to the hype following Hwang's original claims is laughable.

            Even more troubling than the media's limited coverage of this scandal has been the absence of probing inquiry and introspection about our own nation's biomedical research enterprise. Where are the investigative journalists and vigilant elected officials asking the tough questions about how such a fraud could be perpetrated within an academic setting alleged to be guided by ethical safeguards and oversight?

            And how did this massive act of fraud manage to escape the supposed critical eye of a prestigious and peer-reviewed scientific journal? What assurances do Americans have that such an act of fraud could not be perpetrated in the United States? Why doesn't the scientific community in the U.S. seem compelled to provide such assurances to the American public? Why aren't elected officials and the media demanding such assurances, particularly in light of the intense pressures upon scientists to be first at finding cures.

            In his analysis of this scandal, Richard Doerflinger from the U.S. Bishops' Pro Life Office drew three conclusions.

            'The first conclusion to be drawn from this is scientific: As the Washington Post said Jan. 10, "˜the highly touted field of embryonic stem cell research is years behind where scientists thought it was.' After eight years of effort around the world to clone human embryos, no one has achieved even the first step in using this procedure for human treatments (so-called 'therapeutic cloning"). The biotechnology lobby in the U.S. has held since 2001 that such cloning is essential to realizing the clinical promise of ESCs [embryonic stem cells] generally.

            'A second lesson is political. To win public support and government funding, ESC advocates have long made hyped claims and exaggerated promises. In short, they acted like political hucksters instead of scientists, and now are beginning to pay the price. Americans, too, have been bamboozled by promises of "˜miracle cures' around the corner. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sept. 30, now that California voters have been persuaded by such promises to put themselves $6 billion into debt for a huge ESC project, they are finding that treatments are "˜nowhere close, maybe decades away.'

            'The third and most important lesson is moral. Cloning advocates have devoted themselves to a utilitarian ethic: The end justifies the means. Moral concerns about the sanctity of human life, and the indignity of creating new lives in the lab simply to destroy them, were brushed aside"¦We should not be surprised when an ethic that dismisses "˜Thou shalt not kill' in the quest for cures applies the same calculus to "˜Thou shalt not bear false witness.'"

            Greg Schleppenbach is state director of the Bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. He can be contacted at his office in Lincoln at (402) 477-7517.

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