Bioethics in Korea

A Country Report Presented at the East Asian Conference on Bioethics (5 November 1995, Beijing, China)

- Song Sang-yong
Professor, Hallym University, Korea

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 131.
Though I am not an expert on bioethics, this paper gives a brief report of the discipline in Korea. I would like to confine myself to the studies and education of bioethics.

Even in the early days, bioethics was the concern of some philosophically-oriented medical doctors in Korea. However, it was not until the late 1970s when it became a serious subject both for doctors and philosophers. In 1979 Prof. Nicholas Fotion, a bioethicist at Emory University in the United States came to Yonsei University as a visiting Professor. He taught medical ethics in the Philosophy Department as well as in the Medical School. The result was an anthology of essays in medical ethics edited by him and Kim Ilsun published in 1981.

In 1984, the Seoul Society for the Study of Public Health held a series of symposia on medical ethics. It was the first occasion where doctors, scientists and philosophers got together to discuss the major issues of bioethics. The Korean Association of Catholic Doctors also launched a study project in bioethics which resulted in a book Medical Ethics in 1986.

The Korean Philosophical Association had a seminar entitled "Dialogue between Medicine and Philosophy" in 1986. Kim Yong Jin, an ethicist who had published on bioethics extensively since 1981, read a paper on euthanasia. His approach was pretty much in the analytic tradition. Another philosopher in the seminar was Chin Kyo Hun. He dealt with bioethics as a part of philosophical anthropology.

Hwang Kyung Sik, Professor of Ethics at Seoul National University also wrote several papers on bioethics including abortion. He translated Brody's Ethics and Its Applications, Singer's Practical Ethics, and Shannon's An Introduction to Bioethics. In his recent book, The Social Ethics of the Open Society, there are two chapters on bioethics. Hwang Pil Ho wrote a book on abortion from feminist view point. Abortion is a serious problem in Korea. Though there is a campaign against it by Catholics, Korea is called a paradise for abortion. Abortion arose out of birth control or family planning. Like China and India, the traditional preference for a son is one of the main reasons for that. There is no doubt that euthanasia is practiced in Korea, but it has not yet appeared on the surface.

Brain death is not recognized in Korea. It became a hot issue in recent times. It has been debated several times in the medical community. In 1993 a book Brain Death was published by three doctors. Kim Hyong Chol, an ethicist at Yonsei University and Pak Un Chong, Professor of Law at Ewha Women's University were also involved in the debate.

Talking about the education in bioethics, Korea is still in a nascent stage. Several medical schools including Yonsei University and the Catholic University of Korea offer courses in bioethics. But Seoul National University Medical School offers only an "Introduction to Medicine". It is history, philosophy ad sociology of medicine and includes bioethics. My university requires medical students to take a semester course "Introduction to Medicine". Half of it is history, which I teach, and only two hours are allotted to bioethics. However, an increasing number of medical schools feel the necessity of bioethical education. Lack of bioethicists in most universities is a real problem.

By and large, it cannot be said that bioethics in Korea is very active. Fortunately, there is a sign for change. The Korean Society for the Philosophy of Science emerged at the end of 1995. In that society, young bioethicists will make a strong group of bioethics. Therefore, I would predict that the prospect is quite good.

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