MARCH 2, 2008 Vol 58, No 5

BBC NEWS RECENTLY reported that a group of 16 women and four of their husbands are fighting what they consider as a ban on artificial contraceptives in Manila.

To set the record straight, there is no ban on contraception in Manila. The policy instituted in February 2000 during the Administration of former Manila City Mayor Jose Atienza was a result of a democratic process. Pro-life people who did not want to countenance the allocation of tax money for condoms, pills and other artificial forms of family planning won the vote against those who wanted it.

The pro-life advocates’ refusal to use artificial contraceptives is based on a deeply held moral conviction that every conjugal act must be open to reproduction. This moral conviction is not held exclusively by Catholics who are faithful to the teachings of their moral leaders but also by people belonging to other religious groups.

Those who object in conscience against the use of public funds are convinced that artificial contraceptives can do much damage to those who resort to them. They are not blind to the predicament of poor families who have numerous children or to the dangers of difficult pregnancies to mothers – whether poor or not. For this reason, they are actively promoting responsible parenthood through means compatible with their moral beliefs. An example of such a means is the natural family planning method, which can be 98 percent effective.

The 16 women and some of their husbands who are allegedly fighting in court – with the help of population control advocates – to overturn a City of Manila policy that does not allow public funds for artificial contraceptives are doing so completely within their democratic rights to reverse a public policy which they consider detrimental to their health and economic well-being. But they have to contend with other citizens who also have the democratic right to prevent the use of public funds for the purchase of goods which they sincerely believe can damage the physical health of women and their moral values; separating sexual pleasure from reproduction has, in many countries, led to promiscuity and the breakdown of family values.

There is too much finger pointing at the Catholic Church as the culprit for the failure of population controllers to influence Philippines public policy. The fact is, in a democracy, policies are arrived at through public debate involving conflicting views. Many of the outspoken critics of the policy now in force in the City of Manila are Roman Catholics themselves. Catholic bishops and priests can only give moral guidelines but cannot threaten politicians with the so-called Catholic vote (which does not exist). It is still the individual citizens who have to make up their minds. It just so happened that those voters in Manila who object in conscience to artificial contraceptives had greater influence on the decisions of then Mayor Jose Atienza. It is unfair for journalists to present the former Mayor as heartless through the usual emotional appeal describing extremely poor women burdened with numerous children.

As an economist, I can vouch that the majority of poor households in the Philippines deliberately choose to have many children for economic survival.

Furthermore, the pro-life advocates in the Philippines have another reason to object to enshrining population control in any public policy. They have witnessed how in such a society like Singapore that implemented an aggressive birth control policy in the last century, a contraceptive mentality has become so ingrained in the population – especially among educated women – that it is almost impossible to reverse the country’s steep fertility decline.

By actively looking for many alternative means of combatting dehumanizing poverty in the Philippines, the pro-life advocates are preventing the diffusion of a contraceptive mentality that can endanger the common good in the future.

 

Dr Bernardo M. Villegas

"BABIES: A LIFE and death decision for Manila’s poor" (The Straits Times, Feb 13, 2008) paints the Catholic Church as an unfeeling and uncaring institution that seems to be more interested in dogma than in life.

This misrepresents the truth of the church’s concern, which is really about promoting a culture of life. Artificial birth control really means, in practice, "No Birth" and "No Control". The so-called "reproductive rights" being advocated is really the right to contraception and abortion, which is to promote an anti-life (contra-conception) and death (abortion) mentality – in other words, a culture of death.

It has been said that any society that kills its own babies has no future. Singapore has, in common with some other "advanced" nations, some extremely successful birth control policies that promote contraception and the culture of death. Singapore’s fertility rate is low not because we are having less sex but rather because we are having too much contraceptive sex.

The solution, if we want society to grow and not die, is not to attack the church’s position, which is always pro-life, but to focus on how we can educate the masses on responsible parenthood and to build a society which is just and has an equitable distribution of resources through good government policies. All this calls for the promotion of the virtues of chastity, charity, justice, etc.

Promoting a culture of condoms (so called safe sex and reproductive rights) to solve the poverty problem, or the STDs and AIDS problems is like throwing fuel on fire in the hope of putting it out.

 

Andrew Kong

Singapore 469981

THE SINGAPORE BIOETHICS Advisory Committee (BAC) held a Public Consultation on Human-Animal Combinations for Research on Stem Cells on Jan 19 at the Breakthrough Auditorium, at the Matrix in Biopolis. The consultation was led by Professors Lim Pin (Chairman of BAC), Ng Soon Chye (Embryologist), Martin Bobrow (Geneticist), Nuyen (Philosopher), Lee Eng Hin and several BAC board members.

The BAC committee explained to members of the public who attended the session that, after 10 years of stem cell research, their scientists were facing difficulty with cell therapy from the present human embryonic stem cell research. Now, the committee was seeking public feedback on whether human DNA material should be fused with animal ova to create clones of hybrids and cybrids for research to make human body parts for replacement treatment. This may open up more potential for future cell therapy, the committee said.

The committee also said that their scientists were facing difficulty getting volunteers to donate human donor eggs for therapeutic cloning. (Egg donation is a procedure which poses risks to a healthy human female’s life.)

The aim of fusing human DNA material with animal ova is still the same as using human embryos from IVF for therapeutic cloning.

In IVF obtained embryos, the inner cell mass (ICM) of these minute human embryos would normally differentiate to form various organs of the human body. But when the ICM is removed for human therapeutic cloning experiments, the human embryo dies. This is the major moral and ethical objection of therapeutic cloning.

A hybrid clone is formed when an enucleated animal ovum is impregnated with human DNA. This was the technique used in cloning Dolly in 1997, when the DNA of a Dorset sheep was put into an ovum of a surrogate Blackface ewe. Another method is to use the cytoplasm of the animal cell with the human DNA. Ninety-nine percent of the "cybrid" formed is human material.

A chimera of either form of hybrid will have both human and animal tissues. Examples of chimeras are the mule, which is a cross between a horse and a donkey. Mythical examples of chimeras include the Merlion (human and a fish) and Centaur (body of a horse and a human head).

Are there dangers in this line of research? Is it morally and ethically acceptable?

 

The dangers that lurk

 

Medical science has repeatedly shown that animal diseases can be transmitted into humans by any remnant animal protein or DNA fragment, especially from animal protein or genetic material remaining in the egg of the animal. Such diseases can include cancer, leukaemia, or even Alzheimer dementia and mad cow disease by difficult-to-detect prion protein.

Secondly, serious animal infections, presently confined only to the animal kingdom, can infect humans. For example, the HIV virus was transmitted from chimpanzees to humans. It was absent prior to the 1950s but started appearing in Africa either when some tribes ate infected chimps or was passed by errant researchers using chimpanzee serum for human treatment. Chicken eggs may contain the fatal avian virus, and poultry hepatitis B viruses which cause liver cancer.

Thirdly, if a human being is created in the chimera, and then its life is terminated, this would be ethically unjustified.

A fourth ethical issue is that BAC is perceived to be the promoter, the financier, the regulator and, perhaps, even the manufacturer. World Health Organization regulations require that the regulator should not be a member of such a committee because of a conflict of interest. A large company, ES Stem Cell International, which had A*Star support, closed last June after losing S$40 million.

Thus there is a serious need for "elder statesmen" to be appointed, perhaps by the Prime Minister, to supervise all research on stem cells because of the serious ethical problems, the long duration of research, and the high frequency of failure in pioneering research. (In the U.S., the President has a council of Nobel Prize laureates to advise him.) This would assure the public that there is transparency and accountability as large sums of public money are being used. n

 

Dr. Gabriel Oon is an inventor with five industrial patents awarded globally, and a former Consultant for the World Health Organization for Biological Standards and Regulation.

THE SINGAPORE BIOETHICS Advisory Committee (BAC) released a Consultation Paper titled "Human-Animal Combinations for Research" on Jan 8, 2008. Human-animal combinations are entities resulting from the mixing of genes, cells or tissue of human origin with those of other species. The Paper discusses the ethical, legal and social issues arising from the creation and use of such entities for research.?This was done with the view of providing a regulatory framework for scientists to do such research work in Singapore.

One of the areas discussed is the creation of "cybrids" for research. This article by the Catholic Medical Guild of Singapore and moral theologian Father David Garcia, OP, deals with the scientific and ethical issues that surround this area of research.

 

What are "cybrids"?

Scientists remove the nucleus of the egg cell of an animal (e.g. a cow) and replace it with the nucleus of a body cell (e.g. a skin cell) of a human. The resulting embryo, a hybrid made of the cytoplasm of the animal egg cell and the nucleus of the human cell, is called a "cybrid" (short for cytoplasmic hybrid).

The human cybrid is a human clone in animal egg.

It is made of 99 percent human genes and one percent animal genes.

 

Why do scientists want to do this?

Among other reasons, it is hoped that the stem cells derived from such human-animal cybrid embryos can be used for treatment of various diseases. For example, brain cells for patients with stroke or Parkinson’s disease; islet cells for diabetics, etc.

Hence, later in its development (at the blastocyst stage), the embryo is destroyed and its stem cells are harvested and used.

 

Why use animal eggs and not human eggs?

The process of cloning is very inefficient. For example, in the cloning of monkey embryonic stem cells, 304 eggs were used for the production of two cell lines of which one was defective. There being an inadequate supply of human eggs for research, scientists hope to use animal eggs as a substitute since they are in abundant supply.

 

What are the scientific problems associated with cybrid formation?

1. There is an extremely poor chance of success in growing such a creation to a stage where stem cells can be harvested.

2. There is a risk of transmitting animal-related illness because the created being contains animal material. This may include viruses and mitochondria-related diseases.

3. The risk of tumour formation, including the development of cancer in the stem cells, limits the usefulness of such cells for therapeutic purposes.

4. The technique can and does result in abnormalities in the cells produced. Cloned animals have been shown to exhibit many defects, some even grotesque.

 

Are there alternatives to such cloning and embryonic research?

Yes. Resources can be channelled into ethically acceptable means of harvesting stem cells from adult sources. One example is found in that of adult stem cells obtained from sources such as bone marrow, umbilical cord, and the placenta. This area of research has indeed brought about many treatments for disease such as leukaemia and other blood disorders. Recent exciting developments have even shown them to be promising in the area of regenerating nerve and heart cells. Even pioneers like Dr Ian Wilmut (creator of Dolly the sheep), have abandoned cloning techniques for other procedures which seem to be more promising and less ethically problematic.

 

Are there ethical problems associated with cybrid formation?

The ethics of any procedure that involves the human person or human genetic material (DNA) depends on what that procedure actually does.

For example, it can be alright to use human genetic material for procedures such as DNA testing as it does no harm to the person nor does it alter the fundamental nature of the person(s) involved.

However, by transferring human DNA into an animal egg (i.e. cybrid creation) and activating it, a new creature comes into being. We know, from the experiments in cloning (Dolly and others), that this new creature is extremely similar to the donor of the cellular nucleus, which in the case of human cybrids is the human person.

Cybrids are "human clones" – genetic copies of a human individual-produced with the help of animal eggs. So they share the same ethical qualification as the human clones.

However, these clones have lives that are inherently compromised as they are made to grow in the suboptimal and incompatible medium of an animal egg.

Some may argue that an ethical problem only exists if a human clone is actually born. This will never happen since all cybrids (i.e. human clones) would be terminated early in order to harvest the stem cells.

However, the very fact that these people realize that cybrids should not be allowed to develop to term is an admission that there is something very wrong about cybrids. If something is so wrong about cybrids, it stands to reason that they should never have been created in the first place.

Using animal eggs for cloning only aggravates the ethical evil associated with cloning.

 

The BAC asks for feedback

The BAC will be receiving feedback until Mar 10, 2008. Comments can be sent via email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Alternatively, letters can be posted to the BAC, 11 Biopolis Way, #10-12 Helios, Singapore 138667.

Those interested in obtaining a copy of the Consultation Paper can do so from the BAC website: www.bioethics-singapore.org - By the Catholic Medical Guild of Singapore and Father David Garcia, OP

 

IT’S MORNING TIME. The caretaker of the church staggers his way to the main door of the ger-church to open it. Pulling out his key, he realizes that the padlock is frozen. So he goes back to his house nearby to take a piece of paper to heat the frozen padlock. "I wish the sun would shine," he says to himself, "if not, I will have a hard time opening this main."

After some time he is able to open the frozen padlock. Now he has the challenge to light the frozen firewood and frozen coals. "I should light this firewood fast because it’s already 8.30am, the workers will be here soon," he says. The yurt needs at least one hour to be heated; he only has 30 minutes to go. "Ah, I better put more firewood because it heats faster compared to coal." So he fills the fireplace with firewood.

Without noticing the time, it’s already 9.00am. The first worker arrives, "Ovoo (meaning "old man"), how come the yurt is still cold?" the worker asks. "Oh, I am very sorry, my daughter, the firewood was frozen and it is difficult to light," answers the old man. So the worker who arrived first helps the old man. Then the other workers arrive. "Is there hot water?" one worker asks. "Let’s check, the water here is frozen too. Anyway, let’s heat it."

It’s 10.00am and the yurt is still cold. One sewing trainee starts her sewing machine and it does not work; it’s frozen too. It creates only some strange sounds. "Stop the sewing machine," shouts the sewing teacher, "you will destroy it." The secretary wants to print something but her printer is frozen too. The sister who prepares the mass paraphernalia is worried because the holy water and clean water in the chapel are frozen too. The cleaner who wants to sweep the floor can’t start her job either. "Is there anything that is not frozen in this yurt?" one worker exclaims. "Nothing!" answers the youngest sewing trainee jokingly.

"When are we going to have our church building?" they all ask each other. Then the parish priest answers, "Don’t worry, one day we will have our own church building, just a little sacrifice is needed."

All of a sudden, there is an explosion. Everybody is shocked. "What happened?" they ask. Then they hear the parish sister shouting for help. Some workers rush to help the sister; a big fire welcomes them. "The kerosene heater exploded," one worker shouts. They all come to help. Good thing that there is enough fire extinguisher to put out the fire.

"Father, will there be sewing classes today?" asks one sewing student. "I guess we better cancel the classes today since the classroom needs to be cleaned," answers the parish priest.

"We live in a yurt, we come here, it is still yurt; is there no change in our daily life?" asks one youth. The parish priest as usual replies, "Don’t worry, one day we will have our own church building."

It’s afternoon now and it is still cold inside the yurt. The Mass is about to begin, but the amplifier, microphones and keyboard are still frozen. The parish sister is really worried now. So she comes to the parish priest, "Father, is it okay not to use microphone? Please speak louder." "Yes, it’s okay, Sister." During the Mass the faithful are all complaining about the cold. They cannot concentrate on the Mass, some are stamping their feet, as if they are dancing (the yurt floor is frozen too). Some want to be near the fireplace. The parish priest can’t deliver a good homily.

Almost all the workers, including the parish priest, are sick because of the cold. From time to time the workers approach the parish priest to ask for an excuse to go home early.

At the end of the day, the parish priest reflected: "How come other people don’t understand our longing to have a church building of our own? Some have even made their building lavishly beautiful – but we have nothing, even our appliances are exploding. All we have is a frozen yurt and patient people of God..."

Without noticing it, he said to himself, "Don’t worry, Ronald, one day we will have our own church building." - Father Ronald Magbanuan