Congress shuts door on cloning, but don’t lock it just yet, experts say

Dangerous human experimentation or vital research?

Even as a panel of experts at the National Academy of Sciences engaged in heated debate last month over plans by some scientists to begin cloning of humans, the U.S. House of Representatives attempted to settle the matter once and for all by voting overwhelmingly to ban cloning of human embryos for any purpose.

The bill, known as the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2001, was introduced by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) and passed 265-162. An amendment proposed by Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-PA) to allow embryo cloning for "therapeutic" purposes was defeated on a vote of 178-249. If passed by the Senate in its current form, the proposed law would impose a fine of up to $1 million and a 10-year prison term for any person who "performs, attempts to perform, or participates in human cloning" or who "knowingly ships or receives for any purpose an embryo produced through human cloning."

Supporters of the bill say it will halt dangerous human experimentation, while opponents argue that it will prohibit much-needed medical research. And that it will put the United States behind other countries, such as Great Britain, which allows the "therapeutic" cloning of embryos for research purposes — provided the embryos are not allowed to develop past a certain stage.

Stuart Newman, PhD, a professor of cell anatomy and biology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, testified before Congress in favor of the Weldon bill, and says it is high time lawmakers reigned in research in this area. "Even those things that are not federally funded, I would like to see regulated," he states. "And certain things, like cloning of human embryos and manipulation of human embryos, I would like to see made against the law." Newman is a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics, which opposes the buying and selling of human eggs and embryos, the manipulation of all human eggs or embryos by "transfer of cells, nuclei, cytoplasm, mitochondria, chromosomes, or isolated DNA or RNA molecules of human or nonhuman origin."1

The council is in favor of banning the production of human embryos for research purposes whether the source of funds is public or private, Newman says. Even if a cloned embryo is created for "therapeutic" purposes, there is too little standing in the way of these embryos then being used for reproductive purposes. "At that point, gestation of cloned embryos would easily become defined as a matter of individual choice," he says.

As evidence of the "slippery slope" argument, he points out that many scientists have long been opposed to the creation of human embryos through fertilization to be used solely for research purposes. But, once a technological need was shown for embryos in research, many scientists have now tried to make a distinction between those embryos and cloned embryos.

Embryo cloning will inevitably lead to the production of "experimental" human beings, he says. "We shouldn’t be producing new kinds of embryos because of the possibility they will be used to create new kinds of humans," Newman says. "We have made these kinds of moral decisions before. We don’t constantly revisit the slavery question, or the voting rights for women question. There are certain things that are done once we have made cultural progress. And I think deciding to not create and manipulate human embryos is that kind of thing."

Do our genes define us?

Attempting to clone humans at this point in time is unethical and irresponsible because it is unsafe, says Gregory Pence, PhD, a bioethicist and a professor of arts and humanities at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Current cloning experiments still see high rates of unexplained mortality in the cloned animals, which is ethically unacceptable for human beings, he believes. "Bringing a baby to birth is unsafe right now," he notes. "We need to try primate studies first. But I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bath water and ban embryonic cell cloning."

Same genes, different person

Pence questions the argument that cloning of embryos, even for reproductive purposes, violates the dignity of human life. "There is sort of a philosophical crisis that is going on — that is, everybody has bought into the concept of genetic essentialism," he says. "I think one of the reasons people are so opposed to human cloning is that there is this huge message that, if you re-create the genes, you re-create the person."

Even if a person was created with the same genes as an existing person, the "clone" would have different experiences and be raised in a different environment than the original person, he argues. "And, people are all assuming that the cures to diseases will be genetic, which is amazingly naive," he says. "Even when you have single-gene diseases, they are usually triggered by environmental factors, or are multifactorial both on the genetic side and environmental side. In the ’60s, when I was in college, everything was environmental — you had DES [diethylstilbestrol] babies and thalidomide. And now nothing is seen as environmental; it’s all genetic."

The number of theologians and religious figures opposed to cloning also has surprised him, he adds. "Even when you think someone would argue that the soul is immortal, and that it doesn’t matter what genes you have, no one seems to be saying that. They are saying it is a real threat to personhood, to dignity."

Bill may ban more than cloning

Whether you are in favor of or against cloning human beings, another concern is that the language of any legislation banning "cloning" may prohibit more than the public realizes, says Maxwell J. Mehlman, JD, professor of law and bioethics at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "There has been concern that, depending on how the language reads, that laws could prohibit cloning of cell lines and reproduction of individual cells," Mehlman says. Such a ban could affect many different types of research, he adds.

Pence agrees that the wording of the House bill could be construed to restrict more than embryo cloning, but Newman disagrees. "I think the Weldon bill was prepared by people who were cognizant of that [issue] and the language clearly just restricts using nuclear transfer to create embryos," he says.

Cloning: A reproductive right?

Pence also is concerned that the proposed law would make it a crime to "receive" a cloned embryo. "That might mean that a woman from the United States who went to England and underwent a procedure to receive a cloned embryo could be arrested upon returning home," he contends. Some legal experts have indicated they will launch a constitutional challenge to the law, if it is passed, Pence adds. "The government cannot tell you whether or not you can use birth control. We have interpreted that people have the right to use assisted reproduction without interference, how can they ban this form of reproductive technology?"

Reference

1. Board of Directors of the Council for Responsible Genetics. The Genetic Bill of Rights. Accessed on the World Wide Web Aug. 17, 2001. www.gene-watch.org/bill_of_rights_text.html.