Human Stem Cell Research in Singapore, 4 Dec 2010

National Council of Churches of Singapore
Official Statement 

Feedback On Human Stem Cell Research in Singapore To the Bioethics Advisory Committee

A Statement Prepared by the National Council of Churches of Singapore

Introduction

This document, prepared by the National Council of Churches, Singapore (NCCS), serves as a response to the request for feedback made by the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC) on the issue of human stem cell research in Singapore. While there are other related ethical issues not dealt with by the BAC document, our comments focus on matters covered in that document.  The NCCS would like to express our appreciation to the BAC for requesting feedback from us.

The NCCS represents the mainline Protestant denominations and other member churches and Christian organizations in Singapore.

Science and the Christian Faith

It must be said at the outset that the best of Christian Tradition supports the development of science in general and medical science in particular.  The scientific enterprise can be seen as an exercise of stewardship, which is a responsibility that is entrusted upon humankind by its Creator, Scientific knowledge and advancement may be seen as instantiations of the divine grace.  Furthermore, the healing of the sick and all the alleviation of human suffering has always been an integral part of the Christian tradition.  The Christian ethic of love compels the Church to engage thus with the world.  Medical science, insofar as it is directed towards compassionate healing and treatment, is understood as God’s gift to humankind.

The theology of grace that shaped the Christian tradition’s attitude towards science is always tempered by a theology of sin.  Like all other aspects of human culture, the scientific enterprise can either be an instantiation of divine grace or the vehicle for the expression of human sinfulness.  Science has undoubtedly contributed to the betterment of humankind.  But history tells us that science has also been used to harm humans as well.  The scientific enterprise is tainted by sinful aspirations for glory and economic gain. Science can be conducted in an inhumane manner, even when its goals are noble.  For this reason, the Christian tradition has always insisted on the need for ethical parameters to govern scientific activity.  For the Christian Tradition, these ethical boundaries must be established on theological grounds, and not just on ‘humanitarian’ ones.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The statements in the previous section are extremely important, for they provide the basis for our comments on specific topics addressed in the BAC document.  We agree that much mileage can be achieved through research in AS cells, and that stem cell research should focus on this and other sources.  We applaud the BAC’s view that ‘reproductive cloning of human beings should not be permitted’ and agree with the moral view there expressed that the ‘human being is not to be treated as a means to an end, but only as an end’.  While we share the view that the possible benefit of reproductive cloning for the treatment of infertility ‘is greatly outweighed by ethical concerns and safety issues’, we maintain that cloning of human beings should be banned unequivocally and not merely on account of the ‘high risk of foetal abnormalities’.  The latter suggests that human cloning might be envisaged if and when health risks are removed through further refinement in the science of cloning.  We applaud the BAC for working on the principle that ethical considerations be placed above therapeutic potentials.  We shall urge that the same principle be applied to embryonic stem (ES) cell research.

The ethical concerns surrounding ES cell or EG cell research centres on the status of the embryo.  The question is: Is the embryo a human being” And if it is a human being, is it also a person? Our reply to these questions, based on Scripture and tradition, is as follows:-

1.Although the Bible does not answer this question directly, the overall thrust of its testimony is that God is the Author and Creator of life and that the beginning of human life cannot be reduced to merely a biological process.  God is involved.  Every human being is part of the divine plan and the result of divine agency.  We affirm with the Bible that from its earliest beginning, the human person is valued by God and stands in relation to him.

2.The doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that the Second Person of the Trinity was incarnated in human flesh at conception.  At conception, the zygote is already the incarnation of the Eternal Son of God, thereby giving credence to the view that human life begins at conception.

3.The Bible and Christian tradition also make it very clear that the embryo or fetus is a human being – and because it is a human being, it is also a bearer of God’s image.  The Bible does not make a distinction between a ‘human being’ and a ‘person’ in the sense that it is possible for a being to be human but not a person.  The human being is a person.

4.Both science and philosophy may be said to support his view of the human being. From the standpoint of science, the zygote is already endowed with its own genetic code, and its human nature.  We affirm that the embryo from conception is already a human person and are not persuaded that it undergoes any metaphysical change from the fourteenth day that renders a non-human pre-embryo into a human embryo.  From a philosophical standpoint, it must be argued that the zygote of human percentage cannot articulate itself into another animal.  This is because the zygote of human percentage is already a human being sharing in the nature of its parents.

The BAC’s position regarding EG cell research is established on the supposition that it introduces ‘no new ethical issues’ so long as ‘the decision to abort is taken separately and independently from the decision and consent to extract the EG cells’. The issues of abortion and EG cell research are inseparable, and this response must deal with the former in order to address the latter.  Because the embryo or fetus is a human being, made in the image of God, its destruction is tantamount to the killing of innocent lives.  We cannot countenance the destruction of a fetus even in the context of legalised elective abortion.  By implication we do not countenance the use of abortuses for EG cell research, except in the case of fetuses that have been spontaneously aborted, in which case, human intentionality does not come into play.  The same logic applies to the use of excess embryos that were created in vitro.  The fact that we are not responsible for their creation does not give us the liberty to use them for scientific research.

In the same vein, we must voice our objection to what the BAC has termed as human ‘therapeutic cloning’.  The United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology  Authority (HFEA) holds that the embryo becomes a human being only at day 14 when ‘individuation’ occurs.  Sufffice to say that this opinion is not without detractors even among embryologists. For reasons already discussed, we do not subscribe to this view, but maintain that animation or hominization is immediate rather than delayed, and that there is no window between fertilization and human conception such that an embryo may be said to be a potential rather than an actual human being.  For this reason, we cannot agree to ‘therapeutic cloning’ which involves the deliberate creation of embryos by nuclear transfer for the purpose of harvesting stem cells, which necessarily entails their destruction.  The question of human dignity becomes pressing here.  Human beings should not be ‘created’ merely for use in scientific experiments and disposed.  To quote the words of the BAC document – which in our view can be applied herewith with equal forcefulness and relevance – this procedure ‘goes against the moral idea that the human being is not to be treated as a means to an end, but as an end’.

As far as experimentation with embryo that necessitates their destruction is concerned, it is our considered opinion that the ethical concerns far outweigh the therapeutic potentials. On this matter, we urge the BAC to apply the principle it has articulated so clearly with respect to reproductive cloning, vis-à-vis that human beings must never be treated as means to an end, even if the rationale is scientific progress.  The refusal to allow scientific progress to overshadow concerns for human life is found not only in the Christian community, but also in the collective wisdom of humankind as a whole, a wisdom born out of immense struggles in history.  In the shadow of Nazism, The Nuremberg Code declared that ‘no experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur’.  In 1975, the Helsinki Declaration of the World Medical Association maintains that ‘concern for the interest of the subject must always prevail over the interest of science and society’.

Recommendations

Based on the above considerations, the NCCS wishes to recommend that the BAC advise the Government to permit and invest only in those Stem Cell Research strategies that do not involve the destruction of human embryos.  Cell lines developed from adult marrow and from umbilical cord blood can provide ample material for stem cell research without destroying human life.  Stem cells taken from dead fetuses that result from miscarriages can also be used to benefit research.  Granted that adult stem cells and stem cells derived from spontaneous miscarriages are not as ‘highly proliferative’ and malleable as embryonic stem cells, they nevertheless represent a viable alternative to the destruction of human embryos.  The refusal to use embryonic stem cell may delay or render more difficult the realization of the full therapeutic potential of human stem cell research, but it would be a price worth paying since it leads us away from the quagmire of doing harm to innocent lives.  By so doing, one is to uphold the two ethical commitments articulated in the BAC statement: ‘to protect human life and to advance human life by curing disease’.  It should be clear from this statement that the NCCS supports and encourages all stem cell research so long as they do not result in the killing of human embryos.  The therapeutic potentials of ES cell research can never outweigh the ethical concerns.

Prepared by

The Life Sciences Study Group

National Council of Churches in Singapore