Singapore Religious Groups Mixed on Stem Cell Use

SINGAPORE - The question of when life begins--at conception or later--is posing a dilemma to an ethics group advising the Singapore government on whether to allow the use of embryos for stem cell research.

``If you believe that an embryo is a human person from the beginning, then it is not right to use them,'' Lim Pin, chairman of Singapore's Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC), told a news conference following a feedback session with religious groups.

``When does human life begin?'' Lim asked, referring to the difference in opinion among various religious groups on whether stem cells should be used for scientific research.

A debate rages internationally over the use of human embryos in stem cell research, which involves destroying embryos to extract master cells that scientists believe can provide repair kits for cells damaged by incurable diseases.

BAC, appointed by the city-state's government to address ethical, legal and social issues in human biology, behavior and its applications, said in November it approved the use of embryos no more than 14 days old for stem cell research.

Many Christians, who comprise about 15% of Singapore's population, believe that life begins at conception--as do Hindus.

Muslims, making up about 15% of the population, believe life starts after four months gestation while Buddhists, accounting for some 43% of the population, are not too perplexed about the question of when life begins.

Lim said Buddhists fully supported stem cell research.

BAC's position that early embryos could be used for stem cell research was based on the fact that an embryo's nervous system is only starting to form on the 14th day after conception.

We've ``got to come out with something which is doable. I think we may not be able to please everybody,'' Lim said.

The ethics group would make its final recommendations on stem cell research to the government early next year.

Singapore has poured at least S$3 billion ($1.6 billion) into boosting research and seeding start-ups in its fledgling life sciences industry but has no regulations so far.