Ethics in the public eye: Is cloning going too far?

Senate takes action on controversial matter

If you think the current political debate in the nation’s capital over human cloning has nothing to do with your hospital, you might be wrong. The answer depends on the type of legislation meted out between parties in the U.S. Senate, says Sean Tipton, administrator of public affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s Office of Government and Media Relations in Washington, DC.

"What’s being fought out is the ability to ever put a somatic cell into an egg," he explains. That legislation could mean the end to somatic cell research in teaching hospitals and medical centers across the country if the Senate version of the bill passes.

Members of the Democratic and Republican parties agree that Congress should pass legislation to ban the cloning of humans, but they disagree on how it should be implemented, Tipton explains.

The Democratic bill, SB 1602, sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), would impose a 10-year moratorium on cloning but would not impose a permanent ban.

The Democratic bill goes a step further and directs the National Bioethics Advisory Com-mission to issue reports at 41¼2- and 91¼2-year intervals on the status of cloning science and associated ethical and social issues. The commission then would make recommendations on whether the ban should be continued.

The Republican bill, SB 1601, however, would make the cloning ban permanent. That bill would prohibit the creation of embryos using somatic cell nuclear transfer and "stop [Chicago-based physicist Richard] Seed in his tracks," explains Sen. William Frist (R-TN), the lead sponsor of the bill and the Senate’s only physician member.

Seed announced in January 1998 that he would offer human cloning as a service to patients, despite objections from the scientific and political communities.

The contention between parties is whether to allow further study in the somatic cell arena, Tipton says. "The key issue is to separate somatic cell nuclear transfer technology from cloning."

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine defines somatic cell nuclear transfer as "transferring the nucleus of a somatic cell of an existing or previously existing human child or adult into an oocyte from which the nucleus has been removed." Somatic cells are defined as a mature diploid cells.

Research crosses lines

The use of somatic cell transfer technology leads to research in customized stem cell advances, Tipton says. "This could lead to setting up new bone marrow for leukemia patients or new skin for burn victims," he explains.

The Republican version of the human cloning ban could halt research in these areas, he warns. "That could mean academic centers and, at least initially, the infertility folks could be affected. We have the technology to do the nuclear transfer."

The society is just one of several biomedical organizations backing the Democratic approach to banning human cloning. Other organizations have signed on to model language drafted by the society to support the prohibition of cloning but protect research. (For more information on the society’s position on the cloning issue, see statement, p. 31.)

Specifically, that language supports the protection of "promising work that involves: (a) the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer or other cloning technologies, to clone molecules, DNA, cells, and tissues; (b) the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer techniques to develop animals."

The U.S. Senate’s actions come late in the human cloning debate, however. President Clinton already has imposed a five-year ban on human cloning research that is funded through federal appropriations. In January, officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, MD, announced that the agency had the authority to regulate human cloning.

Don’t close the door on research

Regardless of the legislative outcome, it is important to recognize that human cloning prohibition is needed, but it should not be hastily drafted, says J. Benjamin Younger, executive director of the American Society for Reproduc-tive Medicine’s home office in Birmingham, AL.

"We have seen a poorly worded piece of legislation pass in California, which in essence closes the door on promising research because it uses an overly broad definition of cloning," Younger explains.

"We must work together to ensure that in our effort to make human cloning illegal, we do not sentence millions of people to needless suffering because research and progress into their illness cannot proceed," he says.

As Medical Ethics Advisor went to press, neither version of the cloning bills had been voted on in the U.S. Senate, and both were in filibuster. MEA will continue to cover the issue as it develops.