The US House of Representatives is expected today to take the first step toward a ban on human cloning, action that has garnered public and scientific support worldwide. Many nations already have bans in place - including Britain, France, and Germany. Russia approved a five-year moratorium last Friday.
But the House may pass legislation that goes beyond a ban on reproductive cloning to also make it a crime to clone human embryos for research purposes.
This would be an unprecedented federal action in restricting biomedical research in this country, and the debate in both the House and Senate will be over whether the situation justifies such a bold step.
Scientists, the biotech industry, and some patient advocacy groups say "absolutely not." Such restrictions, they say, would only cut off promising avenues of research with potential to benefit millions.
"Cloning techniques in research are integral to the production of breakthrough medicines," says the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and cutting them off "will limit patients' access to possibly life-saving products."
Other scientists, bioethicists, and religious groups say "absolutely." They maintain that society must take a stand and set boundaries prohibiting the manufacture and manipulation of human life, at whatever stage, in the laboratory. "Once embryonic clones are produced in laboratories, the eugenic revolution will have begun," Leon Kass, a biochemist and professor of ethics at the University of Chicago, said in a House hearing. "We have here a golden opportunity to exercise deliberate human command over where biotechnology may be taking us."
House committees have held hearings on two bills. The Bush administration backs the more comprehensive ban sponsored by Rep. David Weldon (R) of Florida, which prohibits the use of human cloning technology to produce a living organism at any stage of development, or to ship or receive a cloned embryo. It doesn't affect cloning of plants, other animals, molecules, DNA, or cells other than embryos. The House Judiciary Committee approved this bill last week in a vote strictly along party lines, with Republicans in favor.
A second bill sponsored by Rep. James Greenwood (R) of Pennsylvania prohibits cloning to initiate a pregnancy, but specifically protects other "therapeutic cloning."
The Weldon bill will be presented for a full House vote today, with the Greenwood bill offered as a substitute via amendment.
"If this vote goes along party lines, then 'therapeutic cloning' is a lost cause," says Robert Lanza, vice president for medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) in Worcester, Mass. "All the patented solutions we're going to try to work out will be stopped dead."
Dr. Lanza is counting on a more favorable reception in the Senate.
ACT startled the world earlier this month with the news that it was already working on cloning human embryos, but will not divulge the status of its work.
Pointing to the potential of their work, Lanza says ACT has been using therapeutic cloning in experiments to give cows brand new immune systems, which could be a basis for treating autoimmune diseases. ACT has cloned 50 cows, and Lanza insists that - contrary to statistics given by other researchers - "4 of 5 cloned cows are absolutely normal."
The controversy over human cloning for research is central to the human-stem-cell debate. While anti-abortion and some religious groups oppose any use of human embryos in research that destroys them, some have been willing to back research using "spare" embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded. President Bush is still mulling his decision on federal funding of such research.
But creation of embryos in order to harvest stem cells had been considered off limits, and Americans oppose it by a 54 to 38 percent margin, according to a Gallup poll.
Researchers say that cloning embryos offers a special potential - developing tissues for repairing patients' cells that would be an identical match for them. "That's the research that people are interested in pursuing as the 'Cadillac' of stem-cell work - and that's the piece that gets caught in this bill," says Margaret McLean, director of biotechnology ethics at Santa Clara University in California.
Several testifiers before Congress, including David Prentice, professor of life sciences at Indiana State University, took issue with the necessity for cloning to achieve that aim, insisting that recent studies demonstrate that adult stem cells can form many more kinds of tissues than anticipated. Those cells could be taken from a patient, without the need for egg donors or a cloning process that "treats embryos as a commodity," said Dr. Prentice.
Critics of the Greenwood bill say it licenses embryo production, encouraging the commodification of human life and opening the way to other forms of genetic manipulation, such as "designer children" and eugenics.
Britain is the one country that has approved cloning for research purposes, within strict limits. Vigorous debates are under way in France, Germany, and Australia. Russia's new ban also prohibits the import and export of cloned embryos. Draft legislation proposed by the Canadian government would ban human cloning both for reproduction and research.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor