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In cloning debate, a compromise

(Page 2 of 2)

More than 1 million children have been born using IVF techniques in the 25 years since the technology has been in general use. The council's report suggests legislation to ban certain IVF techniques as new reproductive technologies and possibilities come onto the horizon.

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It calls for federally funded studies to better determine the long-term health and development of children born using "assisted reproductive technologies," and to study the health and well-being of women who bear these children. It also calls for better data about the costs and success rates of infertility clinics and for stronger oversight by professional societies of doctors and scientists involved in the field.

The council was created in January 2002 by President Bush to advise government and the public about the ethical issues raised by biotech research.

"We view this report as a first step in a continuing national conversation," said Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the council, in a statement accompanying the report. Though members have "strongly held yet divergent views" on issues the council confronts, Dr. Kass says, "this report demonstrates that ... practical ways forward can be found, even while serious disagreements remain."

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a cell biologist at the University of California at San Francisco, was one of two members of the 18-member council dismissed by the White House earlier this year after serving for two years.

She subsequently issued a strong condemnation of the council's workings, and, in particular, its failure to endorse embryonic stem-cell research. In a Washington Post essay, she described the appointment of three new council members as representing "a loss of balance in the council, both professionally and philosophically" and "a hardening and narrowing of views" among its members. Dr. Blackburn declined to comment on the new report.

While Caplan applauds the council's call for regulation of IVF, he faults it for not advocating the creation of an "oversight board" to administer the needed research and regulations. Without enforcement, he says, "these calls for bans are going nowhere."

"I think things are changing in that debate" over stem-cell research, Caplan adds, noting growing interest in therapeutic stem-cell research.

Last month, a Harvard University biologist, Douglas Melton, announced he would make available to researchers 17 new embryonic stem-cell lines - free of charge - that go beyond the limited number authorized for use by the federal government, disqualifying his research from federal funding.

Harvard is also establishing a privately funded stem-cell institute. Last week, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston announced that an anonymous donor had given it $25 million to boost its embryonic stem-cell research program. And states such as New Jersey are expressing a willingness to fund stem-cell research as well.

"Maybe the council realizes that in terms of realpolitik that's the way things are going," Caplan says, "although they've been absolutely opposed up to this point." It may realize "this could easily turn into a campaign issue, with Kerry saying I want research, and Bush saying I don't," he says. "And that's a position I don't think Bush wants to be in on this one."

In one of several personal statements accompanying the council report, a group of five members struck a sanguine tone: "We believe that this language provides a way for Congress to ban reproductive cloning while agreeing to disagree on the question of cloning for biomedical research," they said.