While the United States debates whether marriage is limited to one man and one woman, a presidential panel has waded into an equally controversial area with a reasonable-sounding proposal.
Procreation should be limited the same way: to a sperm and an egg.
By spelling it out in a report last week, the President's Council on Bioethics has offered liberals and conservatives a potential way out in their contentious debate over human cloning and research.
Its ban on reproductive cloning would appease religious conservatives somewhat. But by not extending the ban to include cloning research, the proposal could also win over scientists and other supporters of medical research. The recommendation from the panel, appointed by President Bush, who opposes all forms of human cloning, comes as a surprise to many.
"One can say, at the very least, that [council members have made] a distinction between two types of cloning," says Dr. Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical humanities and bioethics and religion at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "And that's a positive element of this report - that one type [of cloning] should be banned now and that one type shouldn't."
That separation represents something of a milestone. For years, cloning has pitted religious conservatives against medical researchers. Conservatives view all human embryos as life and, thus, oppose research that destroys them. Medical researchers, on the other hand, see the stem cells that embryos provide as promising avenues to cure some of humanity's most intractable diseases.
That debate has stalled a political solution. Measures to ban cloning for the purpose of human reproduction have passed the US House but remain bottled up in the Senate. In many respects, the deadlock resembles the political stalemate over in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
"The federal government and Congress hate getting anywhere near this area [IVF]," says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "As soon as they do, they find themselves immersed in the abortion wars. And that's why for 20 years, they haven't [regulated the field]."
The new proposal may break the impasse because a ban on cloning for human reproduction enjoys wide support across the political spectrum and from scientists. In calling for it, the council for the first time separates the issue from a ban on so-called therapeutic cloning, which aims to use embryonic stem cells - very early-stage human embryos - for medical research. The report does not endorse therapeutic cloning, noting that the council members themselves differ strongly on the subject. But, significantly, it remains silent.
The report also calls for a ban on the use of embryos more than 10 to 14 days old, implicitly acknowledging the existence of embryonic stem-cell research, which typically involves embryos no more than five or six days old. "It's a concession I'm surprised to see them make," Dr. Caplan says. "The 14-day discussion may signal the start of a reconsideration of the [council's] stem-cell policy."
It's an important recognition that "something biological happens" at the 14-day point, which biologists recognize as the time when an embryo must either be implanted in a womb or frozen, or it will die, adds Dr. Jane Maienschein, director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University in Tempe. That seems to represent a "softening" of the position of those on the council who see the embryo as a human life from its outset, she says.
The ban on reproductive cloning appears as a recommendation in a report on IVF - so-called test-tube babies - issued April 1.
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.
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.