Senate Debate Over Human Cloning Ban ‘Escalates’ with Testimony from Supporters, Opponents
The debate in the Senate over human cloning intensified yesterday as numerous supporters and opponents of a cloning ban expressed their views before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and during two media events, the Washington Post reports. Actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed seven years ago in a horse-riding accident, told the committee that those who oppose therapeutic cloning would deny life-saving treatments to people with degenerative diseases. Appearing on behalf of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, Reeve urged senators to reject the outright cloning ban proposed by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and instead pass a ban that would prohibit cloning for reproductive purposes but allow medical research utilizing cloning techniques to continue (Weiss, Washington Post, 3/6). "Our government is supposed to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Beyond that, we have a moral responsibility to help others. Time is absolutely critical," Reeve said (Stolberg, New York Times, 3/6). He also stated that the United States would "lose its preeminence in science and medicine" if it banned therapeutic cloning, but he said that U.S. biotechnology could still "catch up" if the Senate acted quickly (Fagan, Washington Times, 3/6). Reeve pointed out that Sweden, England and Israel have already permitted such research to move ahead, adding, "They are no less moral than we are. They are not rogue nations" (Washington Post, 3/6).
During a media event following the Senate hearing, Reeve was joined in his opposition to the Brownback bill by Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate in chemistry from Stanford University, who said that a ban on therapeutic cloning would "deprive American patients access to potential therapies for some of the most debilitating diseases," an outcome that he called "unbelievable" (Rovner, Reuters Health, 3/5). Berg also said that cloning opponents who contend that adult stem cells have the same scientific potential as embryonic stem cells are "wrong" (Washington Post, 3/6). Dr. Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center for Bioethics and a member of the defunct National Bioethics Advisory Commission, added, "To block off a particular path, indeed to make pursuing it a criminal offense, is an extraordinary if not unprecedented barrier to research with unknown consequences for the development of possible new therapies" (Reuters Health, 3/5).
Opponents of cloning countered that allowing therapeutic research to continue would ultimately lead to a "post-human future" in which the technology would be used to design and "manufactur[e]" humans. Genevieve Wood of the Family Research Council called the term "therapeutic cloning" inaccurate, saying that the technique "results in the death of the cloned human [embryo]. That's not therapeutic" (Washington Post, 3/6). Jeremy Rifkin, a liberal activist and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, said that if therapeutic cloning were permitted, it would open the door to a "very dangerous eugenics era," noting that the demand for human eggs could "entic[e] poor women to compromise their health for money" (Washington Times, 3/6).
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a therapeutic cloning proponent, warned the Senate committee yesterday that the balance in the Senate on the cloning issue is "very, very much in doubt" (Zitner, Los Angeles Times, 3/6). Observers of the hearing paid particular attention to the comments of Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate's only medical doctor. Frist supports embryonic stem cell research, but he said yesterday that he is "extremely concerned" by human cloning. "We have an obligation to make sure scientific progress does not occur in a moral vacuum," he said, asking scientists to "be honest about the prospects of research and avoid the temptation to embellish the potential for future cures that may never materialize." A Frist aide later confirmed that the senator is "close to supporting" Brownback's total cloning ban. However, Frist takes issue with one section of the bill that would criminalize the importation of therapies developed abroad using cloning techniques. Some interpretations of that clause would allow for the arrest, upon returning to the United States, of any American citizen who received treatment involving a cloning-derived therapy while out of the country. Frist said that this clause "needs to be worked on" (Washington Post, 3/6).
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is also being "closely watched" as the Senate draws closer to a vote on the cloning ban. Hatch, who has previously voiced his support for embryonic stem cell research, has not yet stated his opinion on human cloning. Last month, the National Right to Life Committee began airing radio ads in seven Utah cities asking residents to urge Hatch to "say no to human embryo hatcheries" (New York Times, 3/6). In addition, the American Renewal Foundation, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council, recently mailed postcards to "thousands" of Utahns, claiming that Hatch supports the production of cloned embryos to be "killed in medical experimentation." Chris Rosche, Hatch's spokesperson, said that the senator "simply has not taken a position on therapeutic cloning" (House, Salt Lake Tribune, 3/6). The Senate is expected to vote later this spring on Brownback's bill -- which is identical to legislation passed by the House in July -- and on an alternate bill sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would bar reproductive cloning but allow scientists to continue with therapeutic cloning research without legal penalty (New York Times, 3/6).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.