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Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Muddled Ethics of Netflix’s ‘King of Clones’ Documentary

Some of the actions of scientist Dr. Hwang Woo-suk were clearly morally wrong—but were they actually criminal?

Image Credit: Netflix

Netflix’s new hit documentary King of Clones tells the tragedy of Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean scientist who pioneered stem cell research and cloning. The documentary aims to portray Hwang Woo-suk as a scientist who fell from grace by violating ethical standards.

Dr. Hwang did violate standards of scientific truth in his landmark research paper. By doing so, he essentially committed fraud. However, as the documentary notes, there are no laws against scientific fraud in South Korea. Being that Dr. Hwang was ostracized from the scientific community, he clearly faced severe punishment, knocking him off his high position of authority in South Korea.

The discovery of his scientific fraud led to the discovery of embezzlement of funds by Dr. Hwang in buying egg cells and personal expenditures, which is what he was convicted for.

But, what of the other supposed ethical standards he violated? Dr. Hwang does a sufficient job defending his actions in the documentary, but let’s take another look at his actions through the lens of libertarian ethics.

First off, Dr. Hwang requested his female researchers to donate eggs for research on the project. His request is criticized by some in the documentary as exploitative. How dare he take advantage of young female scientists! They would do anything to advance their careers and research.

While that may be true, it does not change the fact that the eggs were donated voluntarily. As noted in the documentary, the female researchers were not compelled to do so.

The bottom line is that Dr. Hwang did not threaten force against person and property. He explained the benefits to humanity and how donating eggs would advance their research. He was completely within his right to do so. In fact, this would be the equivalent to the worker at the DMV asking you if you want to become an organ donor. Both explain the benefits of doing so, but ultimately leave the choice up to the individual.

Why is asking someone to donate their eggs for research unethical while asking someone to become an organ donor or a blood donor is not?

Unfortunately, the eggs acquired through donations by the staff were not enough, and despite Dr. Hwang’s best efforts to acquire eggs from hospitals, he was unable to obtain more. He ended up having to resort to an egg-brokerage firm for the additional eggs.

Why this is portrayed as unethical in the documentary should be perplexing. Why can’t a woman be paid for her egg cells? If it is okay to donate eggs, shouldn’t it be permissible for the eggs to be sold as well? Of course, selling eggs is entirely ethical.

From the starting point of self-ownership, the foundation of private property ethics, one is justified in selling parts of themselves. What you own, you must also be able to sell or give away. This extends to human egg cells as well.

Given that egg cells are not unique human beings, eggs thus have no rights and can legitimately be bought and sold in a free market like any other commodity. Dr. Hwang was completely within his rights to buy eggs.

This bleeds into the crime he was convicted for: embezzlement. He had misappropriated funds for the purchase of eggs on the black market, something he could definitely not disclose. (Of course, he would have been more inclined to disclose the purchase of egg sales if the act had been legal.) He further used grant money for personal reasons. The documentary, however, addressed none of that, choosing instead to focus on his mischief regarding the acquisition of egg cells.

Regardless of the veracity and ethics of the claims against Dr. Hwang, it is clear that he committed fraud, a crime which does not require the government to correct. Fraudsters will lose reputation, leading to decreased opportunities, harming their lives and livelihoods.

However, at the root of many arguments levied at Dr. Hwang is the fear of the technology he is pioneering. One person interviewed in the documentary likened the experiments to “Germany in the 1930s.” Such a comparison is ridiculous. The only rights that he violated were the rights of the journal he published fraudulent work in.

As for his actual research, the potential is great. He did make big promises and did not meet expectations, but was he acting against property rights in doing so? Not at all. If he fails to fulfill expectations, he will be punished by public opinion, as he was when he published fraudulent findings.

Cloning may be a scary thing, but it has the capacity to drastically improve the human condition, from bringing back dead pets or multiplying prized animals to artificially producing human organs.

Dr. Hwang acknowledges that he was blinded by greed at the end of the documentary. Of course, his ego was inflated; the entirety of South Korea treasured him. He made promises he would have been better off not making, but he says that if he had the chance to do it all again, he would not do anything differently.

This documentary highlights aspects about Dr. Hwang’s career that were completely ethical, such as his ambition and the solicitation for and the buying of human eggs. Actions like these should be welcomed in a field of scientific inquiry as revolutionary as cloning. He did commit fraud in using funds he was awarded for personal use and publishing some fraudulent findings, but by far, his public image is tainted by the greater “crime” of daring to make large promises and work toward advancing the human condition in spite of bioethical standards. There were certainly egocentric motivations, but that does not devalue his work.

The story told by the documentary is thus not a tragedy totally brought on by Dr. Hwang himself, but a tragedy of circumstance. Phony ethical standards are impressed upon science in an effort to protect made-up rights. These standards played a major role in tearing him down.

A mind like Dr. Hwang’s should be allowed to freely research within the bounds of private property and individual rights. His fraudulent behavior in the past should definitely mark his character, but that does not detract from the fact that he produces real, cloned animals.

It’s a good thing that he found refuge in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where his genius would be valued rather than scorned.

  • Benjamin Seevers is a Mises Institute Fellow and holds a BA in economics from Grove City College. He will begin his PhD in economics at West Virginia University in fall 2023. His research interests include private governance, public policy, and libertarian ethics.