• U.S.

Cloning: Where Do You Draw The Line?

10 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

Members of Congress said they felt “humbled” last week as they rose to debate the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, and that was an entirely appropriate response to their assignment. The goal was simple: stop anyone from trying to clone a human, a prospect that strikes just about everyone as medically dangerous and morally repugnant. The problem was how to do it in a way that did not also outlaw all kinds of other promising research that relies on some of the same techniques. The stakes could not be much higher–Will we or will we not allow the custom-creation of children?–and the outcome was never much in doubt. But as a preview of battles to come, the debate signaled just how hard it is to write laws about issues so complex, values so transcendent and interests so competing; and it revealed what kinds of moral trades politicians were willing to make when it comes to science that both holds such promise and raises such concern.

The cloning vote landed right in the middle of the Summer of Science, in which politicians, reporters and a President have all gone back to school for a refresher course in cellular biology. This was political science at its most scientific–and its most political. It is no accident that the vote came just as George W. Bush is poised to announce his decision on whether to allow federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research. A majority of Americans and members of Congress favor such research, which holds great promise in curing such diseases as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Whatever Bush decides, in the end it will probably be left to Congress to craft a compromise over all kinds of research involving human embryos. Last week’s vote was a test of conscience for the moderates who represent the swing vote on these issues, a chance to show where they are willing to draw some lines, raise some guard rails.

Both bills before the House promised to outlaw “reproductive cloning,” i.e., cloning to create a baby. But lawmakers had to decide what price they would pay to make sure that ban really stuck. The hard-line choice was Florida Republican Dave Weldon’s bill, which would bar the creation of cloned human embryos for any purpose and punish violators with 10 years in jail and a $1 million fine. The alternative amendment, introduced by Republican Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania, would also bar reproductive cloning but would allow “therapeutic cloning,” in which scientists create embryos in order to harvest the precious stem cells that can be derived from them. Shut that research down, argue the scientists, and the most promising frontier in medicine is suddenly off limits. Let it proceed, say opponents, and you have crossed a line toward the manufacture of humans as tools, and there is no going back.

Some members hailed the debate as a triumph; many have been working hard on these Book of Life issues, consulting scientists and ethicists and searching their souls. Others called it a travesty to debate for only three hours a bill that was rushed to the floor by conservative leaders who were looking to slow the momentum that has been building for the funding of embryonic-stem-cell research. “It’s just Republican Leadership 101,” Greenwood told TIME after his amendment was defeated. “Their basic theory of politics has always been stroking the base rather than courting the centrists.” Still others considered it meaningless: Senate majority leader Tom Daschle indicated that no such bill would come to a vote in the Senate, which meant House members could cast a symbolic pro-life vote without its having any actual effect. That helps explain the lopsided, 265-to-162 win for Weldon’s bill.

Still, there was no mistaking the sense of seriousness in the chamber Tuesday afternoon. “This vote is about providing moral leadership for a watching world,” said Wisconsin’s James Sensenbrenner. Lawmakers cited everyone from Galileo to the Pope to Nancy Reagan in their arguments over how best to balance protecting human life against relieving human suffering. Supporters of the tight Weldon ban warned of embryo farms and headless humans cloned to harvest their organs. “Human beings should not be cloned to stock a medical junkyard of spare parts for experimentation,” declared Tom DeLay. Those favoring Greenwood’s more liberal guidelines warned of America becoming a theocracy, where a minority’s conviction could block research to benefit millions. “If your religious beliefs will not let you accept a cure for your child’s cancer, so be it,” argued California Democrat Zoe Lofgren. “But do not expect the rest of America to let their loved ones suffer without cure.”

For strict pro-lifers the issue is straightforward: an embryo at any stage of development is a human life, worthy of protection, and any kind of research that entails destroying an embryo to harvest its cells is immoral, no matter how worthy the intent. It involves using people as means; it turns human life into a commodity and fosters a culture of dehumanization that we accept at our peril. “We have just enough time to ensure that we remain the masters of our technology,” warned Henry Hyde, “not its products.”

But even some pro-life lawmakers don’t want fears about cloning to stop other kinds of stem-cell research that do not entail the manufacture of new embryos. Many have been relying on a kind of moral escape hatch: the fact that every year there are tens of thousands of frozen embryos left over from fertility treatments in clinics around the country. National Institutes of Health guidelines say it is O.K. to do research on cells from such embryos, most of which would be destroyed anyway; but it is wrong to create an embryo solely for the purpose of harvesting its cells, which can occur in some types of therapeutic cloning. That is the guideline stem-cell proponents are urging Bush to embrace and the one that made it impossible for many moderates, as well as conservatives, to accept the Greenwood proposal, which would violate it.

But if lawmakers were willing to make small moral compromises in hopes of progress toward a cure, why not make a bigger compromise if it promised a miracle? All embryonic-stem-cell research is basically about growing new, healthy tissue to replace the damaged heart muscle in a cardiac patient, for example, or the nerves of a paralyzed person. Researchers believe that stem cells harvested from embryos derived from your own cells may be the most valuable of all because they would provide a perfect genetic match: grow them into new liver or brain cells, and there is probably little chance of rejection. You would never need to actually clone a full-grown baby, they argue; just create the embryo, harvest the stem cells and learn how to make them grow into whatever replacement tissue you need.

Researchers at Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts biotech firm that had announced its efforts to clone embryos, hold out the possibility that within 15 years, scientists will be able to reprogram human cells without having to rely on human eggs and embryos at all. They call it cellular DNA remodeling. By studying cloning, scientists hope to figure out how to take a full-grown adult cell, restart the clock and transform it into entirely new tissue. Then when you have a heart attack, doctors will take one of your skin cells, remodel it into heart tissue and repair all the damaged parts of the heart with new, healthy cells. Such direct remodeling could heal bone breaks, trauma, burns, kidney malfunction and on and on.

This research will proceed much faster, scientists argue, if they are allowed to create embryos–and the Weldon bill would shut it all down. “If therapeutic cloning research is allowed to proceed, it will lead to a wholly new medicine in this century,” argues Dartmouth religion professor Ronald Green, who chairs the ethics board at Advanced Cell Technology. But a full ban “will drive all this research underground or offshore, depriving us of the medical benefits of this research for no net gain.” The Weldon ban even prohibits the import of therapies created outside the U.S. from cloned embryos, which raises the prospect of a cure for cancer that is available in Europe but illegal in the U.S.

How can we be so squeamish about doing research on cloned embryonic cells, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler demanded of his House colleagues, when “we permit abortion? We permit in-vitro fertilization, which creates nine or 10 embryos, of which all but one will be destroyed. We must not say to millions of sick or injured human beings, ‘Go ahead and die, stay paralyzed, because we believe the blastocyst, the clump of cells, is more important than you are.'” But advocates of the ban say the promise of therapeutic cloning has been oversold. By the time researchers actually perfect the technique, they may have solved problems like organ rejection through some other means. “People were holding up the prospect of growing your own liver as something that could happen tomorrow or very soon,” argues Oregon Democrat David Wu, “and that is clearly not the case.”

For lawmakers like Wu, who support embryonic-stem-cell research as long as it does not involve intentionally manufacturing embryos, this was an important place to draw the line. It’s fine to pursue cloning technology with animals or adult DNA and tissue cultures, but not to create embryos for experimentation. Setting that limit might slow progress, but that might be a good thing if it gives everyone a chance to reflect on matters this complex. “This is not about the limits of human technology,” Wu says. “It is about the limits of human wisdom.”

It is also about the limits of law. What good is a partial ban on cloning if it cannot be enforced? Once embryos are produced for research and stockpiled in labs, lawmakers warned, it’s hard to control how they are used. Even under Greenwood, which would subject private labs to some government oversight, there would be no knowing for certain whether scientists were violating the law against actually implanting a cloned embryo in a surrogate mother. And if someone found out? “No government agency is going to compel a woman to abort the clone,” argued University of Chicago medical ethicist Leon Kass at hearings earlier this summer.

Maybe the most honest lawmakers Tuesday were the ones who admitted defeat from the start. Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt voted against both bills. “I do not believe that I know what I need to know before casting a vote of such profound consequence,” he said. He feared that without a total ban, cloning would be inevitable; but as written, the ban was so broad it might block all kinds of important research. “I believe the issue deserves more than a cursory hearing and a two-hour debate,” he said, “and it requires a characteristic which does not come easily to people in our profession: humility and patience.”

–Reported by Andrew Goldstein/New York and Matthew Cooper and Michael Duffy/Washington

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