Gender and Stem Cell Research in South Korea

Gender & Sexuality Studies - Yeonbo Jeong

A review of Science, Nation, and Women’s Bodies: Economies of Reproductive Tissues and Stem Cell Research in South Korea, by Yeonbo Jeong.

Feminist scholarship has long been concerned with how reproductive and regenerative technologies bear upon a woman’s body, social status, and political agency. Yeonbo Jeong’s dissertation offers critical insights into these subjects by examining debates surrounding the use of women’s reproductive tissues (such as eggs, embryos, and umbilical-cord blood) for stem cell research in South Korea. At the center of this dissertation is the 2005 scandal surrounding Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, widely known for fabricating research data in his human stem cell research. The dissertation revisits this scandal through the process of the acquisition of eggs, illuminating a deeply gendered implication of stem cell research that is often ignored in prevailing discourses fixated on “the moral status of embryos” (p.2). However, Jeong’s research is not a “case study” of an exotic South Korea where powerless women were exploited by an eccentric scientist. Instead, Jeong approaches South Korea as a dynamic site where women, activists, and scholars each contribute to critical discourses. In this way, the dissertation reveals how the use of women’s reproductive tissues in stem cell research shapes and is shaped by the social semiotics of body, property, citizenship, and gender in South Korea, and how such research is embedded within a transnational scientific practice, the benefits and risks of which are unequally allocated.

Jeong’s first two chapters concern the scandal itself, focusing on debates around the gathering of eggs for Dr. Hwang’s research. It turned out that most of the eggs were from women who had been paid, and two of Hwang’s junior researchers were among the donors – very different from Hwang’s original claim that all eggs were voluntarily donated. Chapter 1 shows how the issues related to the acquisition of eggs were trivialized in comparison with the significance of the research throughout the course of the scandal through the frame of “de-contextualization and re-contextualization” (p.27). In media reports, women’s body parts were disentangled from the women themselves  and re-contextualized in terms of nationalism, transnational competition, altruism, and sacrifice, interlaced with the all-important goal of scientific advancement.

Chapter 2 engages directly with the voices of the egg donors for Dr. Hwang’s research. Documenting both how these women made the decision to donate and how they later responded to mainstream discourses, Jeong reveals the complexity of gendered agency: egg donation had become a means for claiming one’s “good citizenship” at the intersection of nationalism, biocapitalization, altruism, gender norms, and power relations between patient and doctors. In her analysis, Jeong refuses to reduce these women to either voluntary donors or coerced/ignorant victims, making a critical intervention into the liberalist frame of “informed consent.”

Jeong broadens the scope of her inquiry to the historical and material contexts of the scandal in the following two chapters. Chapter 3 offers a historical approach to how women’s bodies have been constructed as resources for national economic development in South Korea. In this light, the biopolitics of reproduction developed through the birth control policy of the 1960s and 1970s extends to discourses surrounding Dr. Hwang’s scandal, in which the rights of women over their own bodies and the potential health risks of the technologies involved were ignored. Also important is how the paternalistic discourses of the U.S. and other “developed countries” sanctioned the mobilization of Korean women as test subjects for transnational biomedical research.

These historical connections come together in Chapter 4, which examines how “IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) has become the material ground for stem cell research” in South Korea (p.22). Jeong traces the development of the relevant regulations and policies, which in turn led to the expansion of infertility clinics. Now that the Korean government has banned egg donation for research purposes after the Hwang scandal, “left-over” eggs and embryos in IVF clinics have become the only source for stem cell research. While there have been ethical concerns regarding the excessive extraction of eggs from women for the purpose of producing “left-over” eggs, Jeong also examines how some scientists legitimize the use of these eggs for research by framing them as “just waste.”

Chapter 5 explores the ethical and political terrains in the use of umbilical-cord blood (UCB), which emerged as an alternative to embryonic stem cell research after the Hwang scandal. Jeong first criticizes how framing UCB-derived stem cells as “adult stem cells” makes invisible the health risks posed to mothers and babies by the process of extracting cord blood. Jeong also analyzes the marketing for private cord-blood banking, and examines how it refigures motherhood by bio-capitalizing “blood-ties” and individualizing risk-management under the regime of “hope and fear” (pp.139,143). In this way, this chapter further develops earlier themes on the political economy of biomedicine in which women’s reproductive tissues circulate.

Jeong’s dissertation is an excellent example of “situated knowledge,” offering a transnational feminist perspective on the use of women’s bodies in new life science. This research contributes most directly to the literature of feminist science and technology studies, especially in the area of regenerative medicine. While dominant discourses on stem cell research have been focused on the ethical status of embryos, ignoring their ties to women’s bodies, Jeong’s research builds upon Korean feminist discourses scrutinizing how gender, motherhood, nation, and transnational scientific practice are tightly related to the mobilization of women’s bodies used for this emerging field of science.

By paying attention to the role of gender, race, and nation in the case of South Korea, Jeong’s research also makes a critical intervention into recent discourses on biopolitics and bioethics in an age of neoliberal globalization. Some of the major researchers in these fields, such as Nikolas Rose, have focused on the molecular characteristics of contemporary biopolitics. According to Jeong’s research, however, such individuating tendencies have not superseded the collective aspects of “biological citizenship,” especially in non-Western societies – which are not deviations from Western societies but entwined constituents of transnational biopolitics. Jeong thus forcefully points to the limit of the prevailing notions of “informed consent” and “patients’ rights” based on a liberalist framing of the subject. As such, Jeong’s work joins the intellectual company of emerging efforts to examine the social and historical contexts of the bioethics surrounding stem cell research in works such as Charis Thomson’s Good Science: The Ethical Choreography of Stem Cell Research (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2014) and Aditya Bharadwaj’s Local Cells, Global Science: The Rise of Embryonic Stem Cell Research in India (New York: Routledge, 2009).

Hyaesin Yoon
Department of Gender Studies
Central European University

Primary Sources
Interviews with an egg donor, researchers, and activists
Media reports on Dr. Hwang’s scandal
Family-planning promotional materials
Private cord banks’ websites and TV commercials

Dissertation Information
University of Minnesota. 2012. 195 pp. Primary Advisors: Susan L. Craddock, Jacquelyn N. Zita.

Image: Photograph taken by Yeonbo Jeong on September 2008. Seoul, South Korea. Placard by Dr. Woo-Suk Hwang’s supporters.

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