Church challenges stem-cell research

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 2005, 12:00am

But Seoul archbishop fights a lonely battle in questioning scientist who has massive public and government support

The head of the Catholic Church in South Korea has expressed strong reservation about the work of one of the world's leading stem-cell researchers, despite overwhelming public support among South Koreans for Hwang Woo-suk.

Last month, Professor Hwang made headlines around the world after announcing that his researchers had cloned stem cells genetically tailored to patients. Initial reports suggested he had used cloned embryos to achieve his results.

Global opposition to the work of Professor Hwang has been spearheaded largely by the Catholic Church. But in South Korea, the head of the church, Archbishop of Seoul Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, has had to contend with widespread public support for the scientist.

'Archbishop Cheong said he is not against stem-cell research itself as long as it does not involve embryos, which are living beings. It is not true that we totally object to Hwang's research,' said spokesman Hur Yeong-yup after a meeting between the archbishop and Professor Hwang last week.

Public backing for Professor Hwang is widely shared by members of the Catholic congregation in South Korea.

'His work is good, it has the potential to provide cures. We are just watching, withholding judgment, just watching and waiting,' said a nun who identified herself as Sister Teresa, attending a service in Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral.

The voices of support have drowned out the opponents, with public opinion partly being shaped by the South Korean government's support for the scientist.

Seoul recently approved a 50 per cent increase in the US$2 million budget for Professor Hwang's biomedical research unit.

According to Koo Young-mo, of the Korean Bioethics Association, Seoul's policy has also had the effect of dampening debate on the ethics of this controversial field.

'The Korean government takes his research to be the promising future tool for economic prosperity, and so that's why Seoul is reluctant to promote the ethical debate,' he said.

The absence of widespread public discussion of this sensitive issue has been exacerbated by the low awareness in South Korea of the ethical issues surrounding this area of research.

Critics say the Catholic Church has not been aggressive enough in presenting its case.

'Most believers have never heard the Catholic Church teaching on this issue of human engineering, so they listen to public discussion about it, accept the government's explanation of their policy and just end up deciding it is a good thing,' said Lee Dong-il, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of Korea.

But the Korean Bioethics Association has raised serious questions about Professor Hwang's research.

Last year, after the scientist and his team announced they had successfully derived stem cells from a cloned human embryo, questions emerged about whether a graduate student in Professor Hwang's lab had donated eggs for the experiments, a possible ethical breach.

Professor Hwang later dismissed the issue, saying it was a result of a linguistic misunderstanding between the student and a foreign journalist. But members of the association are demanding an inquiry.