Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

Protecting Egg Donors and Human Embryos-The Failure of the South Korean Bioethics and Biosafety Act

Academic journal article Washington International Law Journal

Protecting Egg Donors and Human Embryos-The Failure of the South Korean Bioethics and Biosafety Act

Article excerpt


To realize its goal of becoming the "world-best science nation," the Republic of Korea ("Korea") is investing tremendous money and resources into scientific research and development.1 Embryonic stem cell research is one specific area of study that the Korean government has encouraged and supported. In May 2006, the Korean government decided to invest 430 billion won,2 or $454 million, into stem cell research over the next decade.3 The money was allocated to support research on adult and embryonic stem cells as well as to strengthen the ethical infrastructure underlying stem cell research.4 Korea's strong support for stem cell research has required it to pass new legislation to guide this innovative, yet controversial, field. In 2003, Korea passed the Bioethics and Biosafety Act ("Bioethics Act") to deal with advances in biotechnology, particularly in stem cell research.5 The Bioethics Act came into effect at the beginning of 2005.6

No binding international standards currently govern embryonic stem cell research. In 1998, the United Nations ("UN") passed a resolution banning all forms of human cloning that are "incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life."7 However, it is a non-binding declaration that was voted against by thirty-four member countries.8 Korea voted against the UN resolution and the Korean representative to the UN General Assembly made it clear that the resolution will not affect Korea's policy of allowing therapeutic cloning.9 As a result, the Korean Bioethics Act allows therapeutic cloning, yet places a ban on reproductive cloning.10 Reproductive cloning creates an embryo with the aim of producing a new, genetically identical individual, whereas therapeutic cloning produces embryos to be used in research.11 Thus, unlike reproductive cloning, therapeutic cloning has the potential to help patients by replacing or supplementing their damaged cells, tissues, or organs.12

Korea's continued support of therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research arguably requires changes in the Bioethics Act to adequately protect egg donors and human embryos from exploitation and to bring the Act into compliance with international standards. Part II of this Comment provides a brief introduction to the Bioethics Act and addresses the highly publicized stem cell research scandal that took place in Korea after the Bioethics Act became law. Part III argues that the Bioethics Act falls short of international guidelines, such as the Declaration of Helsinki and the Nuremberg Code, because it does not require voluntary informed consent or comprehension of the research by egg donors. Additionally, the institutional review boards ("IRB") lack the independence necessary to monitor the quality of informed consent obtained. Part IV raises questions about a human embryo's status as a potential human being and argues that Korea's legislation fails to protect human embryos by not limiting their use in embryonic stem cell research. Part V recommends several approaches to strengthen the protections for human research subjects and place limitations on the use of human embryos in stem cell research. This Comment ultimately concludes that Korea should make the necessary changes to the Bioethics Act to stay consistent with international standards and ensure that scientists are conducting ethical and legal research.


After several unsuccessful attempts, Korea finally passed the Bioethics Act on December 29, 2003; it became effective on January 1, 2005.13 The Bioethics Act aims to promote biotech research that can be "used to prevent or cure human diseases."14 The Bioethics Act allows scientists to conduct research on human embryos, but prohibits the production of embryos for purposes other than pregnancy.15 The uncovering of Korea's infamous stem cell research scandal attracted the world's attention to the regulation of embryonic stem cell research in Korea. …

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