James Chan-Jin Kim and his wife Gloria Young Ae Lee recently completed a trip to Boston to gather information that may be helpful in expanding the fledgling pro-life movement in their home country of South Korea. Pilot photo/ Donis Tracy
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CAMBRIDGE -- It has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. It is at the forefront of cloning and stem-cell research. One survey conducted found that nearly half of all women between the ages of 15 and 44 have had at least one abortion.
The place is South Korea and until 2005, there was no organized voice in the country to speak out for life.
Seeing the need to address the situation, Seoul Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk called together a group of devoted Catholics to begin the Committee for Life, a pro-life movement of the Archdiocese of Seoul. There was only one problem: after 35 years of abortions on demand, no one knew where to begin.
“Cardinal Cheong strongly felt we had to do something,” recalled James Chan-Jin Kim, an attorney and former commissioner of the Korean Trade Commission who is one of the founding members of the Korean pro-life movement. “But the concept of pro-life is so unfamiliar to Korea.”
“We are interested in learning and hearing about the pro-life movements in other places,” continued Kim. “Korea is at the initial stage of the building of our prized pro-life system.”
Speaking at the Cambridge hotel where he and his wife Gloria Young Ae Lee stayed during a recent trip to Boston to gather information about the pro-life movement here, Kim spoke of the pressing issues facing South Korea today. Lee, also an attorney and the first woman ever to be appointed as an appellate judge in South Korea, is the chairperson of the Legislative Committee of the Pro-Life Movement in the Archdiocese of Seoul.
According to Lee, one of the biggest challenges facing her country’s pro-life movement is the lack of written material available in Korean.
“There just is no access to information,” and, she said, in contrast to the long-running abortion debate in the United States, no Korean group has ever spoken out against abortion and other “culture of death” issues such as cloning and embryonic stem-cell research.
Currently Lee has been investigating other nations’ efforts to reign in cloning and embryonic stem-cell research. In addition to this current visit to Boston, the couple has traveled to places such as Georgia, Louisiana and Australia to gather information on pro-life efforts.
“Advanced legislation in the states of Louisiana and Georgia can provide good examples for us,” Kim said.
According to Lee, her government recently passed the “Life Ethics Safety Act,” which opened the door to embryonic cloning for research on incurable diseases.
“The law was designed to justify Professor Hwang [Woo-suk]’s own experiments,” said Kim. “It was not explicit, but based on the timing, it was to excuse the research Professor Hwang was conducting.”
Professor Hwang Woo-suk is a South Korean biomedical scientist who recently was forced to resign as professor of biotechnology from Seoul National University after he fraudulently claimed to have successfully cloned human embryos. Prior to the scandal, he was considered a pioneer in the field of embryonic stem-cell research.
“We are trying to make a ban for all cloning,” Lee explained.
In order to draft a viable revision to the Life Ethics Safety Act, Lee has devoted much of her time to studying other pieces of legislation throughout the world.
According to Lee, she will be drafting the revision in the coming months. Although she is not sure whether or not her revision will be accepted by the government, “the Christian view must be expressed.”
Lee believes the outcome will be determined in the upcoming South Korean elections. However, she is hopeful that with the backing of the cardinal and the bishops of Korea, the revision will stand a chance. Although they make up only 11 percent of the population, Catholics -- and particularly the clergy -- are held in high regard.
“There is much work still to be done, but our work is beginning,” she said.
According to Kim, Korean culture has experienced a “fundamental change” in the past 50 years, creating a climate in which abortion, cloning and embryonic stem-cell research is viewed as routine.
As recently as the 1960s, the culture was mainly agricultural, he said, and large families were commonplace.
“By tradition, children were a blessing from God, and the more children one had, the better,” Kim said. In that culture, abortions were illegal and women caught having an abortion were incarcerated for one year; those who committed the abortions were incarcerated for two years.
Soon after, Korea began to become industrialized. No longer was the culture based on agriculture; now people began moving into urban areas -- the extended family was no longer necessary and children were no longer considered to be blessings, Kim explained.
In 1973, when the “Mother-Child Protection Act” was passed by the government, abortions became completely legal, he said.
“Now people who didn’t want a child, even [if] they were married, could kill the fetus,” he said.
Today, over 1.5 million abortions are committed each year.
According to population statistics, the average number of children in a family is less than two and the population growth rate fell to .21 percent in 2005.
Because of an inherent preference for male children, “many times one may choose to take an abortion when the fetus is determined to be a daughter,” he said.
This has caused such a disparity among the genders that 11.9 percent of all males will not be able to find a wife within 10 years according to a 2006 report released by the Korean National Statistical Office.
“It is really a shame, but it is true,” said Kim. “This is the worst kind of situation in Korea.”
To date, the pro-life movement in Korea has held five seminars in order to teach Koreans the importance of supporting life on issues such as “ethical problems of research into human embryos,” “use of genetic information and human rights,” and “research into women’s rights and use of eggs.”
In addition, they awarded prizes to members of the international pro-life community whose efforts have played a major role in the world. This year’s awardees were MaryAnn Glendon, Learned Hand professor of Law at Harvard University and president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and a member of the Pontifical Council of the Laity, and Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Roman Curia.