South Korea to expedite enactment of law banning human cloning

SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea will accelerate efforts to enact its first law against human cloning after a firm claimed it had successfully implanted a cloned human embryo in a Korean woman, the government said Friday.

"Whether the claim is true or not, it has become more imperative that we enact such a law at the earliest possible date," said Kim So-hui, an official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Kim's ministry and the Ministry of Science and Technology have drafted separate law bills that would ban cloning of humans and limit stem cell research. The two bills are being combined into one for approval by the National Assembly.

Officials said the unified bill will call for a prison term of up to 10 years for those who attempt or help to clone humans. It will also require the establishment of a presidential ethics committee with the power to set boundaries on embryonic and stem cell research.

Research on embryonic stem cells could revolutionize the treatment of diseases such as cancer and Parkinson's disease. Yet, the research is controversial because embryos must be destroyed to recover the stem cells.

South Korea launched an investigation this week into a claim by the U.S.-based Clonaid's South Korea branch office that its head company had made a South Korean woman pregnant with a cloned embryo.

Kwak Ji-hwa, who identified himself as a spokesman for Clonaid's South Korea office, said Thursday that the woman was two months pregnant and that he was confident the woman would give birth to a healthy baby.

Kwak said he was not concerned about the government investigation, because the pregnancy was achieved abroad and South Korea has no law that bans human cloning.

In telephone interviews with government investigators and journalists, Kwak refused to provide any details about the reported case, such as the surrogate South Korean mother, his company and its location in the United States and South Korea.

According to its Web site, Clonaid was founded in 1997 by the Raelian Movement, a sect that believes life on earth was created by clones of extraterrestrials.

The Raelian Movement claims a membership of 55,000 worldwide. It was not known how many followers it has in South Korea.

According to Kwak, the Clonaid spokesman, the Korean implant was arranged through BioFusion Tech, a South Korean firm based in the southeastern city of Daegu, under agreement with Clonaid.

Government investigators visited BioFusion's office Wednesday, but found that it had moved out of the building a few days earlier.

Most cloning experts are opposed to cloning for reproductive purposes, citing numerous birth defects and other serious problems affecting cloned animals.