After a year of intense debate, the US Senate is set to vote on human cloning. The two constituencies most actively engaged biomedical scientists and religious conservatives have battled each other to a deadlock. None of the bills now before the Senate appear likely to pass.
Is there a way to break this deadlock? Yes, but it will require of both sides a realization of what is at stake and a willingness to compromise.
Opposition to cloning of humans is nearly universal. Although some say that creating a cloned child should be allowed for infertile couples, the number of couples for whom cloning would be the only means to have a child is very small, and once cloning was perfected and permitted for one group it would be all but impossible to contain. People intuitively understand that creating a child by cloning would be an affront to human dignity and individuality, would serve no good purpose, and should be banned.
But what about using cloning techniques to create embryos for medical research, rather than to create a child? It's a divisive issue. Biomedical scientists say research cloning would allow embryonic stem cells to be produced to replace diseased tissue. Antiabortion activists say research cloning is morally unacceptable because it requires that human embryos be destroyed.
Faced with this lineup, many people assume the cloning debate is the latest round in the abortion wars. But this is not so. Many prochoice women's health advocates fear that embryo cloning could lead to an exploitative market in women's eggs. Many environmentalists see cloning as a potentially dangerous technology being approved before long-range consequences are considered. Human-rights and civil rights leaders are wary of a new, high-tech eugenics.
An immediate and overarching concern is that the widespread creation of clonal human embryos would increase the risk of irresponsible scientists using them to create a cloned child, even if that practice were made illegal.
The history of fertility clinic scandals, in which doctors deliberately misled women about the origins of implanted embryos, justifies such concern. If hundreds of clonal embryos were being created on a regular basis in scores of private labs around the country, the covert use of some of these embryos to initiate human pregnancies would be almost trivially easy.
If embryo cloning is to be allowed at all, it would need to be done under restrictions strong enough to prevent theft or deliberate misuse.
Unfortunately, the bills before the Senate sponsored by the biotech lobbies are woefully deficient in this regard. At best, they require that proposals to create clonal embryos for research be approved by the Food and Drug Administration and by local review boards to ensure informed consent and patient safety. Such provisions are important but don't address the critical issues.
Competing legislation sponsored by conservative senators would ban the creation of clonal embryos outright. Passage of such legislation would clearly reduce the likelihood that a human clone would be born. But it could also close the door on possible medical research benefits.
If we are to avoid further deadlock, we will need to find a compromise between an immediate, permanent ban and a wide-open free market for cloned human embryos. What should be done?
First and obviously, the Senate should pass legislation making the creation of clonal children a crime. There is overwhelming support for this and action is long overdue.
Second, the Senate should impose a moratorium on the creation of clonal embryos, to allow time to consider the sorts of rules and regulations under which embryo cloning might be allowed to proceed.
At a minimum, such rules would require that laboratories and researchers obtain licenses subject to revocation before applying to begin embryo cloning. All cloning operations would have to be monitored and an unbroken chain of custody established over each clonal embryo, from creation to destruction. Freezing and storing of clonal embryos would be prohibited.
All scientists, biotech firms, or clinics not authorized to do research cloning would be barred from possessing clonal embryos. The purchase and sale of human eggs and human embryos would be made illegal. Finally, the FDA or other body would be authorized to conduct inspections as needed.
These rules are no stricter than existing rules for research on dangerous toxins and pathogens. Regulations of this sort already are in effect in Britain, and are being considered in other countries.
Given all that is at stake, and all the acrimony this issue creates, we cannot afford further deadlock. A ban on reproductive human cloning and a moratorium to consider tough rules on embryo cloning is a workable compromise.
Richard Hayes is executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society.