By Bae Ji-sook
The Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that embryos do not have the same legal status as people, setting a legal precedent allowing the use of those left over from fertility treatment for research purposes.
The court rejected a petition by a group of philosophers, doctors and university professors to stop the use of embryos, giving a green light to human stem cell researchers to use extracts from them.
"Embryos that are less than 14 days from insemination have the potential to become a human being but have no independent humanity. They should not be granted the same constitutional rights as a human being," Lee Kang-kook, president of the Constitutional Court, said.
He also noted that research using leftover embryos kept in refrigerators for more than five years was not unconstitutional.
"We cannot expect people to be seeking embryos that are more than five years old for artificial insemination purposes. But the cost of their preservation is immense. The donors of the embryos may feel uncomfortable, but this should not prohibit their use for research purposes," he said, adding that stricter monitoring was needed on research procedures.
Lee also ruled on an embryo listed as a "plaintiff." "Since the embryo is denied full legal status as a human, we don't find its rights to decide its own future being violated."
The case dates back to last year, when the plaintiffs claimed that embryos are the fundamental source of new human beings and personalities, and that as such their dignity and rights should be respected.
The lawyer Cho Deok-je previously said the plaintiffs include a couple undergoing artificial insemination, who were shocked to find extracted cells that had been fertilized were being used for other purposes.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare as well as ministries of justice and education, science and technology said in the public hearing that embryos should be respected as something that could "become human" but should not be given full human status.
The ruling is expected to add strength to researchers who have halted their studies since 2005, when human embryonic stem cells cloned by former Seoul National University professor Hwang Woo-suk proved to have been fabricated, leading to restrictions on their use.
Currently, the global stem cell treatment market is estimated at around $40 billion, of which cosmetic practices to remove wrinkles and "rejuvenate" skin, as well as the speeding up wound healing make up the majority.
The government last year announced that it will treble funding for embryonic stem cell research by 2015. The National Bioethics Committee lifted the country's three-year ban on stem cell research in April 2008, allowing Cha Medical Center to conduct research of this kind to find treatments for complex medical conditions.