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Senate faces fiercest fight: cloning

As Capitol Hill weighs a historic cloning bill, advocates fire fervent ads, and some liberals ally with Christian right.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2002


The Senate is gearing up for a historic decision on human-embryo cloning that could affect everything from medical research to how the sanctity of human life is defined – and which party controls Capitol Hill in 2003. It is one of the most emotional and morally fraught issues this Congress has taken up.

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Lobbyists on one side, led by the biotechnology industry, promise breakthrough medical cures for millions of people facing debilitating injuries and diseases.

The other side, which includes an unusual coalition of right-to-life conservatives and pro-choice liberals, warns of a bleak new world where babies are designed, poor women exploited for their eggs, and human embryos bought and sold to produce "spare parts" for others.

At the heart of the policy debate is a distinction between "reproductive" cloning – using cloned human embryos to produce babies – and "therapeutic" cloning to develop medical cures. Both use the same techniques, and a fire wall between the two is not easy to define or enforce, experts say.

The Senate debate, which could begin this week, comes as cloning advances in labs worldwide threaten to outpace governments' capacity to keep up. Although this issue has been pending for months, the outcome of a Senate vote to ban all human cloning remains too close to call.

Dueling radio and television ad campaigns launched last week reduce cases on both sides to the most strident level.

"Can't they see that it's just not right to make human embryos and harvest them like crops?" laments a voice in a new radio ad sponsored by the National Right to Life Committee. The ads air in eight states, several with close races that could determine who controls the next Senate.

Meanwhile, CuresNow, a coalition of scientists, patients' groups, and the biotech and entertainment industries, is reviving one of the most potent ad duos ever, Harry and Louise, to support therapeutic cloning. The couple helped scuttle prospects for Bill Clinton's health plan in 1993-94. "One bill puts scientists in jail for working to cure our niece's diabetes," Louise laments in a new spot. Congress can "stop human cloning without stopping life-saving research."

Yesterday, a rival advocacy group fired back, with an anticloning ad featuring "Harriet" and "Louis."

Research – and debate – gather speed

No one, aside from a few controversial fertility specialists, claims it is ethical or even feasible to clone a human. At the very least, failure rates in animal-cloning experiments signal that the technique presents unacceptable risks to humans, scientists say. Some worry it could hasten moves toward designer babies and eugenics, and blur genetic distinctions between animals and humans.

But many scientists here and overseas predict that research using stem cells from cloned embryos could produce cures for severe injuries and diseases.

A ban on human-embryo cloning, such as passed the House last July, and is currently proposed in the Senate, would "impede progress against some of the most debilitating diseases known to man," concludes a statement released this month by 40 Nobel Prize-winning scientists.