In Congress, a cloning stalemate

Efforts to ban cloning falter over scope of proposed prohibition

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Since Congress first mooted legislation on the issue in 1997 following the birth of Dolly, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, some 44 bills have been introduced on the human cloning issue.

In the past three years, the House of Representatives passed two bills that would prohibit human cloning research, including one passed by the House in February 2003 that would have made attempts to clone a human embryo a crime, punishable by a 10-year prison sentence. Both bills have died in the Senate.

Most of the legislative initiatives so far have sought to prohibit one of the two types of cloning—reproductive cloning, the asexual creation of a human being through cloning technology, and therapeutic cloning, the use of cloning technology for medical research—or both.

There is widespread agreement in Congress that reproductive cloning needs to be outlawed. But a sharp difference over therapeutic cloning continues to cause a stalemate. Lawmakers have lined up in nearly equal numbers with the two broad coalitions that have been fighting it out on the issue.

One group, consisting mainly of pro-life organizations, religious conservatives and churches, considers any research on human embryos to be immoral. The other side— scientific and medical community, the biotechnology industry, and patients' rights groups—while denouncing reproductive cloning, oppose any restrictions on therapeutic cloning, claiming that the technology could potentially lead to treatment of life-threatening diseases.

The American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences have voiced their support for therapeutic cloning. But those in the scientific and medical world, by and large, also support a ban on reproductive cloning. At a recent meeting on human cloning, more than 60 national science academies called for a ban on attempts to create a human clone.

Most of the people who oppose human cloning do so because of moral, ethical and religious reasons. Some scientists have pointed out that the science itself is too risky. The success rate in animals has been very low, with a less than 5 percent chance of survival for the cloned embryo once it's implanted in the womb. A large percentage of those cloned embryos that do make it to term die soon after birth, and studies show that cloned animals have a higher mortality rate than non-clones.

Dolly the sheep had a series of medical problems in her short life; she was euthanized with a lethal anesthetic injection in February 2003. "Scientific reasons say [human cloning] is nonsense and we shouldn't do it and that it's quite irresponsible to do that," Rudolph Jaenisch, an expert on cloning technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told the Center.

"Human cloning is unsafe," echoed University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan. "Animal data proves it."

For some supporters of human cloning, the procedure is worth the risk if used as a means for infertile couples to have children. "I am trying to develop safe techniques of human cloning so they can have the healthy babies they want," Panayiotis Zavos, a Kentucky-based fertility expert who has announced his intention to produce a human clone, testified before the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources. A small group of academics, such as Lee M. Silver, a molecular biology professor at Princeton, advocate cloning for a highly controversial reason: as a step toward producing genetically vetted and enhanced human beings.

Fits and starts

Moves to regulate cloning research and prohibiting reproductive cloning come in reactive spurts. This trend first began in 1997, in the aftermath of Dolly's birth, when members of the 105th Congress introduced ten different bills aimed at regulating cloning. Richard Seed, a Chicago-based scientist, also captured legislators' attention in January 1998 by announcing that he would begin cloning human beings. Later that year, Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts-based company, said it had produced a cloned embryo for research purposes.

Since then at least 34 more human cloning-related measures have been introduced in the House and Senate, generally in response to news accounts of scientific breakthroughs or dubious claims of successful cloning efforts.

Not surprisingly, by far the most hectic legislative activities on the issue were in 107th Congress, when the stem cell issue was attracting headlines and President Bush was grappling with the issue. Some 19 bills were introduced then. (Ultimately, Bush decided to limit federal funding to a few stem cell lines.)

Perhaps the first and only formal presidential directive on the issue was in March 1997, when President Clinton issued a memorandum banning the use of federal funds for cloning research, in the wake of "[r]ecent accounts of advances in cloning technology." One of the advances Clinton referred to was the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal. "Federal funds should not be used for cloning of human beings," the order said.

While the presidential decisions may have imposed a measure of legal guidance for stem cell research, there is no clear oversight of cloning by the executive branch, or even certainty about which department would regulate it.

The Food and Drug Administration claims it has the authority to regulate human cloning research. But some question the logic of the FDA overseeing human cloning. "It is not food, and it is not drug," Stuart Newman, a professor of Cell Biology, New York Medical College, said. "If it is them, it's by default."

Agustín Armendariz contributed to this report.