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In cloning debate, a compromise

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2004



While the United States debates whether marriage is limited to one man and one woman, a presidential panel has waded into an equally controversial area with a reasonable-sounding proposal.

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Procreation should be limited the same way: to a sperm and an egg.

By spelling it out in a report last week, the President's Council on Bioethics has offered liberals and conservatives a potential way out in their contentious debate over human cloning and research.

Its ban on reproductive cloning would appease religious conservatives somewhat. But by not extending the ban to include cloning research, the proposal could also win over scientists and other supporters of medical research. The recommendation from the panel, appointed by President Bush, who opposes all forms of human cloning, comes as a surprise to many.

"One can say, at the very least, that [council members have made] a distinction between two types of cloning," says Dr. Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical humanities and bioethics and religion at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "And that's a positive element of this report - that one type [of cloning] should be banned now and that one type shouldn't."

That separation represents something of a milestone. For years, cloning has pitted religious conservatives against medical researchers. Conservatives view all human embryos as life and, thus, oppose research that destroys them. Medical researchers, on the other hand, see the stem cells that embryos provide as promising avenues to cure some of humanity's most intractable diseases.

That debate has stalled a political solution. Measures to ban cloning for the purpose of human reproduction have passed the US House but remain bottled up in the Senate. In many respects, the deadlock resembles the political stalemate over in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

"The federal government and Congress hate getting anywhere near this area [IVF]," says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "As soon as they do, they find themselves immersed in the abortion wars. And that's why for 20 years, they haven't [regulated the field]."

The new proposal may break the impasse because a ban on cloning for human reproduction enjoys wide support across the political spectrum and from scientists. In calling for it, the council for the first time separates the issue from a ban on so-called therapeutic cloning, which aims to use embryonic stem cells - very early-stage human embryos - for medical research. The report does not endorse therapeutic cloning, noting that the council members themselves differ strongly on the subject. But, significantly, it remains silent.

The report also calls for a ban on the use of embryos more than 10 to 14 days old, implicitly acknowledging the existence of embryonic stem-cell research, which typically involves embryos no more than five or six days old. "It's a concession I'm surprised to see them make," Dr. Caplan says. "The 14-day discussion may signal the start of a reconsideration of the [council's] stem-cell policy."

It's an important recognition that "something biological happens" at the 14-day point, which biologists recognize as the time when an embryo must either be implanted in a womb or frozen, or it will die, adds Dr. Jane Maienschein, director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University in Tempe. That seems to represent a "softening" of the position of those on the council who see the embryo as a human life from its outset, she says.

The ban on reproductive cloning appears as a recommendation in a report on IVF - so-called test-tube babies - issued April 1.

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