SAN FRANCISCO — The debate over human cloning, provoked by recent scientific breakthroughs, is suddenly echoing through statehouses from Florida to California.
The announcement last month that a Scottish scientist had succeeded in cloning a sheep has prompted legislators in at least seven states to offer bills to ban experiments to clone human beings. Among those leading the charge: California and New York - two of the largest biomedical centers in the country.
In their rush to deliver a preemptive strike, the states are raising an enduring question: Who, if anyone, should regulate what goes on in the research lab? Answers in the case of cloning, which involves a rare moral dimension, are coming from everyone from ministers to Nobel laureates.
"It is more judicious for our government to ban human cloning now because, without such a ban, science could soon forge into the vacuum," wrote New York State Senator John Marchi, who has introduced legislation to make human cloning research a crime.
"It's the wrong way to deal with advances in science," counters Stanford University biochemist and Nobel Prize-winner Paul Berg. "We need a mechanism that is more flexible.... Legislation closes doors that you may want to open six months from now."
Although moves to ban human cloning have also been introduced in Congress, both industry officials and scientists argue there is no need to rush to regulate the technology. Research is far from being able to replicate a human being, they say, and there is there no interest in doing it now.
Areas of consensus
There seems to be broad support, however, for Mr. Clinton's announcement of a 90-day moratorium on federal financing of such research, and a request for similar voluntary steps by private industry. The moratorium will last until the National Bioethics Advisory Commission can make recommendations.
For states to step in now might create a "nightmare" of conflicting regulation, says David Gollaher, president of the California Health Care Institute, a university and industry policy group. "The scientific community - commercial and university - would feel comfortable with a fair, reasoned federal policy that would subsume what the states do," he says.
But state legislators respond that states have a legitimate jurisdiction over health issues and have played an important historic role in initiating public discussion of such questions.
"Therefore, a dialogue ought to ensue in this state with respect to the scientific and moral issues that surround the prospect of cloning human beings," says California State Sen. Patrick Johnston, a moderate Democrat and chairman of the Select Committee on Genetics and Public Policy.
Mr. Johnston has introduced a bill calling for a five-year moratorium on human-cloning research. He presents this as an attempt to provoke public debate and as an alternative to either unfettered commercially driven research or a complete, permanent ban.
"I don't want all the scientific achievement and the forces of the marketplace to drown out the public's questions and apprehensions about human cloning," he says.
Some bioethicists agree. Barbara Koenig, co-director of the Stanford University program on Gnomics, Ethics, and Society, supports this approach. "The states always push these things," she says. "I don't think science is immune from social scrutiny."
The debate as to who should be responsible for regulating such experiments has not resolved the issue. It is unclear where federal and state jurisdiction lies in this area, says George Annas, a law professor and ethicist at Boston University. "It's appropriate for both the federal and state governments to legislate here."
But both ethicists and scientists share concerns that legislation should be carefully drawn so as not to preclude areas of research involving human cells, even embryos, that fall short of actually transplanting or implanting a cloned embryo. Both California and New York are proposing statutes that might block another practice known as "twinning," which involves artificially splitting embryos, as happens naturally to produce twins, explains Dr. Koenig.
Many scientists are eager to ensure that the potential bans will not block other promising areas of research. Barring the cloning of a full human being is understandable, says Stanford University immunologist Irving Weissman, but this should not include new treatments for diseases through cloning of replacement cells or the cloning of human organs for transplants, he says.
Scientific and industry officials argue instead for the formulation of voluntary guidelines that can be revised in accordance with advances in scientific knowledge.
Been there, done that
They cite the example of the 1975 Asilomar Conference where scientists from around the world, along with lawyers, government officials, and journalists, gathered to discuss the dangers of research into recombinant DNA technology. Eight months earlier a group of American scientists had called for a voluntary moratorium, citing dangers to human health and the environment from unbridled pursuit of the newfound ability to manipulate genes.
The conference called for resumption of research but under strict federal guidelines, a decision which has led to the boom in biotechnology in the last twenty years. The Asilomar conference did not however deal with ethical issues, acknowledges Dr. Berg, who helped organize the meeting.
And the biotechnology industry that has grown since then makes a process of voluntary compliance more difficult, since much more basic science is now done in commercial settings, says Koenig.