17 Jul 2002
SPEECH BY DR TONY TAN KENG YAM, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER AND MINISTER FOR DEFENCE, AT THE OPENING CEREMONY OF THE CONFERENCE ON "BEYOND DETERMINISM AND REDUCTIONISM: GENETIC SCIENCE AND THE PERSON" HELD ON WEDNESDAY, 17 JULY 2002 AT 9.30 AM AT THE TRINITY THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE
Rt Rev Dr John Chew
Bishop of Singapore and
Chairman Board of Governors
Trinity Theological College
Ladies and Gentlemen
It gives me great pleasure to join you this afternoon at this conference jointly organised by the Trinity Theological College, the National Council of Churches in Singapore and Eagles Communications.
This conference is particularly timely in view of growing public interest in the ethical and social issues raised by the rapid advances in the biomedical sciences and in particular, the recent public discussion generated by the release of the recommendations of the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC) on human stem cell research and cloning.
Rapid advances in biomedical science
The current advances in biomedical science knowledge and technology, and their application to the treatment of human diseases, are being made at a breathtaking pace. It was in the 1860s that an Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel, first established the genetic basis of inheritance through his experiments on peas in the gardens of his monastery.
A hundred years later, in 1953, Francis Crick made the bold pronouncement: " We've discovered the secret of life". Together with James Watson, he had described the double helical structure of DNA.
The next key milestone took place thirty years later. In the mid-1980s, the international Human Genome Project was launched to sequence the human genome, in a project described by James Watson as "the ultimate tool for understanding ourselves at the molecular level". By the year 2000, the first draft of the human genome sequence had been completed. The full version is expected in the year 2003.
In 1997, the world was stunned by the birth of Dolly, the sheep. It illustrated the potential of the cloning technology, and marked the advent of the era of regenerative medicine - or approaches to replace failing tissues and organs.
A critical component to making this approach a reality is the harnessing of human stem cells. Just as much as transplantation biology has dramatically improved the survival of previously lethal diseases, products from stem cells have the potential of treating a wide range of common diseases from diabetes, to neurodegenerative disorders, to heart failure. The question is not how, but when these treatments will be a reality.
Ethics and the biomedical sciences
What is the relevance of these developments to the average Singaporean, our society, and to Singapore as a whole?
On the one hand, the advances in biomedical research and medical practice will result in better ways of diagnosing diseases and of curing them. It is likely that some conditions which are currently difficult to manage and which result in major disability and premature death, will become amenable to treatment through new therapeutic approaches. In particular, harnessing stem cell biology has the promise of extending the quality as well as the length of life after an organ is damaged and thus would improve the welfare of our progressively ageing population.
At the same time, apart from our benefiting from these advances as individuals, Singapore as a whole could also gain from the economic opportunities presented by the development of the local biomedical science industry. We envisage that this industry will grow and become another pillar of the Singapore economy.
Unfortunately, the impact and speed of change in biomedical research has also raised important ethical, legal and social questions that we as a society must address collectively. In particular, the ability of researchers to manipulate genes and cells in totally new ways has moved at a pace which threatens to outstrip the speed at which regulators, ethicists and society can comfortably accommodate.
Striking the right balance
In this regard, striking the right balance is critical. We need to allow biomedical science to develop and grow for the benefit of mankind and the continued progress of Singapore. At the same time, we need to debate and address the broader social and ethical issues squarely, and to put in place strong safeguards to protect the individual, public interest and the Singaporean society. It was with these considerations in mind, that the Singapore Cabinet appointed the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC) in December 2000 to examine the ethical, legal and social issues arising from biomedical science research and development in Singapore, and to recommend policies to the Life Sciences Ministerial Committee on these issues.
One of the first areas which the BAC studied was that of human stem cell research and cloning, which is arguably associated with the most complex and pressing ethical issues. In Feb 2001, the Human Stem Cell Research (HSR) Subcommittee was formed under the BAC to specifically deal with these subjects.
Since then, the Subcommittee has sought to improve public appreciation of the science and key ethical issues relating to human stem cells and cloning. Over a 10-month period, the BAC also conducted an extensive consultation process to understand the concerns and sentiments of local interest groups and the general public. In addition to seeking the views of 39 religious and professional groups, several dialogue sessions were held with religious groups and members of the public from all walks of life. The Committee welcomed and received numerous written submissions and emails on this subject through its website. The Committee also examined international positions and obtained inputs from BAC's International Panel of Experts.
Following this extensive consultation process, the BAC produced a comprehensive report and made 11 key recommendations on human stem cell research, as well as reproductive and therapeutic cloning. In its report, released on 21 June 2002, the BAC recommended a complete ban on reproductive cloning but suggested that human stem cell research, including research with human embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning, should be allowed to proceed but under a strict regulatory framework.
The BAC's report has generated significant interest both locally and internationally. Locally, while many are in favour of the recommendations, there have been some voices of disagreement. This is not surprising, considering Singapore's multi religious, multi cultural and multi racial population. In such a heterogeneous society it is not reasonable to expect total agreement.
The crux of the controversy revolves around the derivation of embryonic stem cells from early human embryos. Embryonic stem cell research holds tremendous potential therapeutic benefits for mankind. Research using these cells could lead to novel treatments for a range of serious and disabling medical conditions. Unfortunately the process of deriving embryonic stem cells entails the sacrifice of the embryo. On this basis, some sectors of society, including the Catholic and Protestant groups have raised objections to such research, because they believe that the human embryo is a human being from conception.
Several other religious groups, however, do not share a similar view.
The BAC has chosen to take a balanced position and not to close the door completely on such research, but to allow research on embryonic stem cells to proceed under a stringent regulatory framework. In the same way, the BAC has recommended that the creation of human embryos specifically for research may be allowed only if:
First, there is strong scientific merit in, and potential medical benefit from such research;
Second, no acceptable alternative exists; and
Third, it is carried out on a highly selective, case-by-case basis with approval from a statutory body.
In addition, no one can be compelled to take part in research on human stem cells to which he or she has a conscientious objection.
The BAC's stand, especially with regard to research on early embryos, is in line with the position taken by governments such as the United Kingdom and the United States. This is noteworthy as the UK government has more than a decade's experience with the most comprehensive set of controls over embryo research anywhere in the world. The House of Lords Select Committee Report on Stem Cell Research, which was published in Feb 02, has also endorsed continued embryo research but within a fourteen day limit.
In America, the US government has endorsed restrictions on the use of government funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Under this policy US federal funds can only be used for research on 60 existing human embryonic stem cell lines ie cell lines where the derivation process was initiated prior to August 9, 2001. However, these restrictions do not apply to privately funded research.
Acceptance of report and ensuring safeguards
In a situation where total agreement is not possible, the Government agrees with the BAC's balanced approach of allowing scientifically meritorious research to proceed but under a stringent regulatory framework with provision for conscientious objection. The Government has thus accepted the recommendations of the BAC. We have done so after careful consideration and with the conviction that the benefits to mankind from this research cannot be ignored.
The Government has also tasked the Ministry of Health to set up the regulatory framework to license, control and monitor all human stem cell research conducted in Singapore, using the BAC's recommendations as the basis.
In conclusion, I would like to thank the BAC and all those who have contributed in one way or another to the report.
In arriving at its recommendations on human stem cell research, the BAC has set in place a procedure which will provide an orderly, systematic public examination of difficult and complex issues which Singapore will encounter as we develop the Life Sciences. The work done by the BAC has put in place one of the key pillars to build a strong and sustained foundation for the development of Life Sciences in Singapore.
The BAC's report should be viewed as a living document. Human stem cell research is a constantly evolving field and we need to periodically review the ethical issues and our regulatory framework, to ensure that we keep pace with significant new developments. This cannot be the work of just a small group of individuals but a collaborative effort among many parties.
Theological, scientific and ethical questions will continue to play an important role in the ongoing debate on Life Sciences issues. I am confident that the conference today, with a panel of speakers comprising scientists and theologians from the West and Asia, will help further the dialogue between Science and Religion.
I wish all participants an interesting and fruitful conference.