There's general agreement on Capitol Hill that cloning human beings should be banned. But doing so is proving to be tougher than it looks.
At issue are questions Americans have pondered for years, although usually in the context of abortion. Now, the familiar queries are arising over cloning: When does human life begin? What constitutes a human embryo?
A bill Senate Republicans hoped to rush to passage stalled on the floor this week over these questions, especially as they pertain to medical research. Sponsored by Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee and Christopher Bond of Missouri, the measure would permanently prohibit human "somatic cell nuclear transfer," or the replacement of an adult cell nucleus with a nucleus from another cell, in order to create a human clone or a cloned human embryo. The nucleus of a cell contains the genetic material, or DNA, that scientists say determines the physical characteristics of an organism. Plant- and animal-cloning research could continue, as could existing cell research using other methods.
"While the science surrounding cloning will and should move forward, it is clear that neither the science nor the country is ready for the production of human clones," says Senator Frist, himself a medical doctor.
Opponents, led by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, say the GOP bill goes too far. Backed by more than 120 scientific and medical groups, they argue that the bill bans technology they say is needed for medical advances in the fight against many diseases.
"I have no doubt that responsible legislation to ban the production of human beings by cloning can ... be passed into law during this session of Congress," Senator Kennedy says. "But [this bill] is not that responsible ban on cloning. It is an attempt to capitalize on public concern to rush through a sweeping and inappropriate ban on critical medical research."
Supporters of the Lott-Bond bill say that transplanting a nucleus from one human cell to another creates a human embryo and therefore human life, which must be protected.
"Some scientists would like to be able to create human embryos, play with them, and ... experiment with a human embryo that is starting to grow and say, 'OK, time is up. We will toss this one away and we will start playing with another one,' " Senator Bond says. "Once you get into that process ... you have stepped over the moral and ethical line."
But opponents say that a somatic cell transfer does not create a fertilized egg and that in any case, such a cell cannot develop into a human fetus unless placed in a woman's womb. "That so-called 'waste embryo' is not an embryo in the traditional sense of the word. It is not capable of becoming a human being outside of the womb," Senator Feinstein says.
Kennedy and Feinstein offer a substitute proposal that would allow the cloning procedure in a laboratory for tissue research. But it would ban for 10 years the placing of the cell that results into a womb, where it could develop into a baby.
Action now moves back to the Judiciary Committee, which will consider the Lott-Bond bill and its criminal penalties, and the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which will take up the Kennedy-Feinstein proposal.
CONGRESS was prompted to act after a Chicago physicist, Richard Seed, announced he was ready to open a cloning clinic and offer services to infertile couples. But there is no need to rush, Kennedy says: Seed is not a biologist or a physician, has no technical expertise in reproductive medicine, and has no financing and no lab. The US Food and Drug Administration, moreover, says it has authority to stop any attempts to clone humans until Congress acts.
Cloning first caught public attention last year when a Scottish scientist announced he had cloned a sheep named Dolly. A recent letter in Science magazine, however, questions whether the scientists actually cloned an adult cell and suggests Dolly might have grown from an embryo cell in a process that has been used for years without public concern. The Scottish scientists are doing further research, but stand by their conclusions.
The House Commerce Committee is also considering anticloning legislation, and GOP leaders in the lower chamber are pushing for a floor vote as soon as possible.