Asian Pro-Lifers to Meet Amid Push for Embryonic Research

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Catholic pro-lifers in Singapore are holding a major regional conference this week, just days after the city-state's government, which is actively promoting the bio-tech revolution, confirmed it would allow scientists to clone human embryos to obtain stem cells, while outlawing reproductive cloning.

The decision places the Southeast Asian nation among those that are pushing this week for a U.N. resolution banning reproductive cloning, while allowing individual countries to decide on cloning for research. The push is being led by Belgium and other European countries as well as China and Japan.

Proponents label this option "therapeutic cloning" on the grounds that therapeutic benefits may one day accrue from the stem cells, while pro-lifers call it "destructive," pointing to the resulting death of the embryo.

A competing resolution before the U.N. legal committee this week -- proposed by Costa Rica, and supported by more than 60 other countries, including the United States -- would ban human cloning for whatever purpose.

Pro-lifers argue that hopes of possible future treatments for diseases do not justify the destruction of embryos for their stem cells. As an ethical alternative, research using "adult" stem cells from other sources, such as bone marrow and placentas, should instead be pursued, they say.

Singapore's move to provide a regulatory framework in which research can take place was announced at the end of a major stem cell conference, drawing experts in the field from around the world.

The gathering coincided with the opening of a bio-tech complex the government hopes will become a global center for research.

Singapore has sewn up agreements with leading Western institutions, including Johns Hopkins Medicine of Baltimore, and has recruited some key foreign researchers to work in its sparkling new $500 million "Biopolis" complex, which can house up to 2,000 scientists.

Some Asian cultures have shown less aversion than Western ones to experimentation on human embryos, and researchers like Alan Colman, the British scientist who helped clone Dolly the Sheep in 1996, have moved to Singapore to work in what some have called a freer and better-funded environment.

Last week, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) -- a leading campaigner in the U.S. for embryonic stem cell research -- signed a $3 million agreement with Singapore's biomedical research council to support the research in Singapore.

"In many countries, including the United States, research on embryonic stem cells faces possible limitations for political reasons," the foundation said in a statement.

"Due to these factors, JDRF is making efforts to fund stem cell programs where top scientists have a more favorable environment in which to conduct research."

Because of the ethical concerns, President Bush restricted federal funding two years ago to a limited number of cell lines that already were being used for research.

Like many supporters of the controversial research, JDRF argues that both embryonic and adult stem cells could help to treat diseases like diabetes, but that those from embryos offer greater potential.

Singapore's decision to pass legislation regulating the work follows earlier recommendations by a government-appointed Bioethics Advisory Committee, to allow both cloning for research and the use of non-cloned embryos for research purposes.

In the latter case, the embryos are generally left over after in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment.

Although each has the potential to become a fully-developed human being, it will instead be harvested for its stem cells, and die.


Not everyone in Singapore is pleased with the direction in which the researchers are taking their tiny country.

Starting Thursday -- the same day the U.N. committee considers the cloning resolutions -- a four-day conference of a Catholic pro-life organization called Human Life International will be held in Singapore.

The host organization, the Family Life Society, is bringing together participants and speakers from across the region and beyond, to discuss family and pro-life issues.

"The challenges and threats the church and the family face today from anti-life and anti-family establishments require a coordinated and determined response," it said.

Participants would share experiences, deepen understanding of the most pressing issues, pray, and seek to "become effective instruments in protecting and promoting the Christian values of love, life and the family."

Andrew Kong of the Family Life Society said from Singapore this week that pro-lifers were "certainly concerned about the pushing of embryonic stem cell research in Singapore."

"This church's position on the issue is clear and has been made known to the government," he said.

"But being a secular state, the government has only always seen our responses and statements as merely religious views -- which they would respect -- but are unable to understand that these are not merely religious views, but moral views."

Kong said the society, together with Catholic medical and legal bodies, had been holding seminars to educate members of the public about embryonic stem cell research "and other anti-life issues."

In the weeks ahead, the government will allow Singaporeans to have their say on the proposed legislation.

Prof. Lim Pin, the chairman of the Bioethics Advisory Committee, was quoted as saying: "It is not possible in a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious society to have a position which satisfies one segment of society."

Singapore needed to come up with a position that took into account the whole range of feelings and values, to enable it to move ahead, he said.

Singapore's 4.4 million people comprise an ethnic and religious mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow