By Kim Tong-hyung
Stem cells are once again creating excitement here, with the government finally ending its mourning period over disgraced gene scientist Hwang Woo-suk and lifting the research ban on new stem cell lines.
However, the decision has also revived a disquieting controversy over the use of cloning techniques and the destruction of embryos, a debate that has now reached the halls of the Constitutional Court.
The court hosted a public hearing over the issue Thursday, following a constitutional complaint filed over the resumption of stem cell research.
The odd group of plaintiffs included doctors, philosophers, university professors, students and a couple in Seoul who even signed for an extracted embryo they are keeping.
Aside from arguing whether embryos should be granted, the same legal rights as persons, the participants in the court hearing also debated whether it would be right to use embryos left from artificial insemination for research purposes.
"Embryos are the fundamental source of new beings and personalities, and their dignity and value should be rightfully respected," the plaintiffs said in a statement submitted prior to the hearing.
"There is no reason or fundamental logic to treat embryos differently based on their state, whether or not they are expecting implantation within the human body or being kept outside of it for possible use for artificial insemination."
The opponents of stem cell research claim that embryos should be considered human beings with full human rights.
They also point out a growing view in the science world that the benefits of research cloning would perhaps never meet its enormous expectations.
Predictably, government agencies, such as the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs and the Ministry of Justice, balk at the suggestions, questioning the logic of granting the same legal status to persons and embryos in a fridge.
The policymakers, who are pledging full support for local research, insist that granting an embryo the legal status of a person could only be based on the premise that it will eventually grow into one. This doesn't count the unused embryos in the labs that may or may not be used for creating a pregnancy in the future.
"The human embryo should be respected as a potential human being, but should not be regarded with the same legal status as real persons," said a representative of the National Bioethics Committee during the hearing.
"So embryos must not be given the same constitutional rights as persons. The research using human embryos should be permitted under strict conditions if it can bring advancements in stem cell research that will lead to benefits in developing more effective medical treatments."
The National Bioethics Committee lifted the country's three-year ban on stem cell research in April when it allowed the Seoul-based Cha Medical Center to conduct research on embryonic stem cells to develop treatments for complex medical conditions.
In July, the government announced that it will triple its state funding for embryonic stem cell research over the next five years, from 40.2 billion won this year to 120 billion won (about $103 million) in 2015.
The Lee Myung-bak administration is concerned that research has faltered too much since the landmark works of former Seoul National University (SNU) scientist Hwang on cloned human stem cells turned out to be fraudulent in 2005.
Researchers, such as those from the Cha Medical Center, claim that research on cloned human stem cells remains relevant in the efforts to create more effective treatments for difficult diseases.
However, critics call for a more cautious approach, pointing out the unresolved issues around egg extraction and handling of extracted embryos.
Even some countries with active stem cell programs, such as Canada, has been strictly monitoring somatic cell nuclear transfer, which involves merging adult cells with eggs whose nuclei have been removed, over concerns about the well-being of women and the commercialization of human ova.