AP, Dec. 28, 2002
By LAURAN NEERGAARD, AP Medical Writer
WASHINGTON — Real or hoax, the claim that the world’s first human clone has been born puts the next step squarely into Congress’ court: Will it ban baby-making via cloning?
President Bush led a conservative drumbeat Friday urging lawmakers to take that step. But even a ban would reach only so far — presumably people could still go abroad to seek cloning experiments.
The nation has no specific law against human cloning. But the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates human experiments, contends that its regulations forbid human cloning without prior agency permission — permission it has no intention of giving.
FDA officials already are investigating whether Clonaid, a company that claimed to have produced the cloned baby girl born to an American woman, illegally performed any of the work on U.S. soil.
There is broad support in Congress for an overt ban of cloning to produce babies, partly from concern that FDA’s authority won’t hold up in court.
But many senators are not averse to cloning embryos solely for research that could cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes, and they blocked passage of legislation that would ban that type of cloning, too.
Now the question is whether the uproar over an alleged cloned baby will break that stalemate — and if so, whether Bush and his allies would succeed in also banning the cloning of embryonic cells for medical research.
Clonaid’s announcement “should serve as a chilling reminder that individuals are still trying to clone human beings,” said incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician who backs a ban on all forms of human cloning.
Lawmakers expressed skepticism Friday that Clonaid, a company formed by a sect that believes in extraterrestrials, had indeed produced a clone. Still, leading Republicans, backed by some powerful religious groups, called for a quick ban when Congress returns next month.
“The president believes, like most Americans, that human cloning is deeply troubling,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “Despite the widespread skepticism among scientists and medical professionals about today’s announcement, it underscores the need for the new Congress to act.”
But lawmakers who had pushed for a compromise studiously avoided comment Friday fearing the Clonaid uproar, whether it proves true or a hoax, would harm efforts to keep cloning for medical research legal.
“This science offers us enormous hope,” said Michael Mangiello of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which is preparing to fight again for so-called therapeutic cloning.
There are two issues: cloning to make babies, and cloning of embryos to cull a special cell type, called stem cells, for medical research.
The House last year passed a bill, backed by Bush, that would ban both types.
But in the Senate, Sens. Edward Kennedy, liberal Massachusetts Democrat, and Orrin Hatch, a conservative Utah Republican, partnered to push a bill that would ban only reproductive cloning, arguing that research cloning was crucial. Neither proponents of a total ban or of the compromise could get enough votes to pass their bills.
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., pledged Friday to quickly introduce legislation for a total cloning ban when Congress returns. Kennedy and Hatch wouldn’t comment.
Neither side yet appears to have enough votes yet to settle the issue, and lobby groups geared up for a big fight.
The National Right to Life Committee decried “human embryo farms” in urging an immediate ban. Conversely, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America argued that a few-celled embryo in a laboratory dish doesn’t deserve the same protections as a person, so cloning for medical research should continue.
How did research get caught up in cloning? Many scientists believe embryonic stem cells may hold keys to lifesaving therapies because they are “master cells” that can form any tissue in the body. Anti-abortion groups decry research with those cells because culling them destroys an embryo.
One way to get stem cells is to clone an embryo. Yet even if Congress succeeds in banning cloning for medical purposes, those cells still could be culled from embryos left over from fertility treatments, a point Frist makes. Indeed, California this fall passed a law requiring fertility clinics to tell women they can donate their embryos to research.