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.
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."
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.
The ban appears in both the House bill and a version of the Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas and Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana. Scientists are especially concerned that the prospect of up-to-10-year jail terms for researchers who violate such a ban would have a chilling effect on stem-cell research or drive it overseas.
Many nations have already banned human-reproductive cloning; the UN is now drafting a treaty to make that ban worldwide. Others, such as Germany, have also outlawed therapeutic cloning. With the US a world leader in scientific research, its moves on this front are closely watched.
For nearly 25 years, Washington has blocked federal funding for research involving human embryos. On Aug. 9, President Bush broke that ban, when he announced that federal funds could be used for research on existing human embryonic stem cells. But the pace of innovation in private labs is forcing politicians to look more closely at the need for new laws.
Soon after Scottish embryologists announced the cloning of Dolly the sheep on Feb. 24, 1997, then-President Clinton urged private companies to adopt a voluntary ban on human cloning. The last effort to legislate the issue deadlocked in the Senate in 1998. Last July, the House banned both reproductive and therapeutic cloning, by a vote of 265-162. On April 10, Bush backed that position.
But last November's announcement that Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., had created the world's first cloned human embryos turned up pressure on the Senate to legislate on the issue swiftly. And an Italian fertility doctor made unconfirmed claims this month that three cloned human pregnancies are under way.
"Technologies are approaching certain thresholds that the public has long said it does not want to cross, and now we need legislation to ensure that they aren't" says Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Calif.
Conservatives say creating a human embryo for the purpose of destroying it is wrong, even for purposes of medical research. "We must not allow the procedures used to create Dolly the lamb to create Dolly the human. We'll very much regret it if we start treating the human species as livestock," says Senator Brownback.
In this bid for a comprehensive ban, conservatives picked up unexpected support from some pro-choice liberals, who call for a moratorium on research cloning, until there are safeguards to protect women and ensure that research embryos do not migrate to fertility clinics.
They note that the debate has been polarized between a total cloning ban on one side, and giving a free hand to biotech firms for therapeutic cloning, on the other.
"We support choice," says Judy Norsigian, executive director of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. "Many of us support, for example, obtaining stem cells from embryos in IVF clinics that would otherwise be destroyed. But we also need protection for women."
Meanwhile, Senate undecideds are narrowing to 10-to-15. Many Democrats are rallying around an alternative bill, sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, which outlaws reproductive cloning, but allows therapeutic cloning.