Senate Democrats Postpone Debate on Human Cloning Ban
Senate Democratic leaders yesterday blocked an effort by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to force a vote during this legislative session on a bill to ban all forms of human cloning, Reuters/New York Times reports (Reuters/New York Times, 11/28). Brownback had called on the Senate to take "immediate action" to outlaw human cloning after Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, announced on Sunday that it had cloned human embryos. The House passed a bill banning all forms of human cloning in July. During yesterday's morning session, Brownback attempted to speak on the Senate floor, but he was "unable to gain recognition to speak" from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). After Daschle left the floor, Brownback attempted to introduce the House cloning initiative through a Senate rule that allows lawmakers to bypass the majority leader if they have unanimous consent to do so.
However, his effort was "quashed" by Assistant Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "I understand the sincerity of the senator from Kansas. But this is an issue people feel strongly about on the other side. ... This can be done next year," Reid said. Reid was joined in his opposition by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) (Bjerga, Wichita Eagle, 11/28). Specter requested that legislators "[g]ive the scientific community an opportunity to present (its) case" (Dewar, Washington Post, 11/28). Both parties agreed that there is a "consensus" on banning reproductive cloning, which is cloning for the purpose of creating a human being. However, they differ on how far a cloning ban should extend, with some lawmakers arguing for the preservation of therapeutic cloning -- cloning human embryos as a source for embryonic stem cells for use in medical research. Brownback and other supporters of a total cloning ban have argued that allowing research into therapeutic cloning could lead to reproductive cloning in time (Dinan, Washington Times, 11/28).
Brownback is still considering other options to halt human cloning research. A Brownback spokesperson said yesterday that he is "keeping every legislative option open" and may pursue a moratorium that would put a stop to all human cloning research in the United States until the full Senate considers legislation in February or March. Daschle does not support such a moratorium. "A six-month delay will not save lives and could extend unnecessarily the search for a cure for a lot of these diseases that ought to be addressed as quickly as possible," he said. Brownback could also choose to attach cloning amendments to other bills or filibuster other legislation until Senate leaders agree to consider the cloning ban. Daschle yesterday discouraged such tactics. "I hope that we will avoid having to deal with the issue before the end of this session, but if we are forced to deal with it, my hope is that the Senate will act prudently," he said (Washington Times, 11/28).
Pressure to act quickly may soon fade, as many scientists have noted that ACT's announcement has a "limited scope." Tony Mazzaschi, associate vice president for research at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said ACT had conducted a "PR blitz masquerading somewhat as a scientific communication" with its announcement on Sunday. The cells in question never grew beyond six cells, he said, "well short of the five-day-old blastocyst stage required for any attempt to harvest stem cells for medical research" (Lane, Newsday, 11/28). Lutz Giebel, CFO of CyThera, a rival biotech firm also working with embryonic stem cells, said that scientists have known "for quite some time" that the techniques used by ACT could yield "one or two cell division[s]," adding that the announcement was "not very significant or really great news" (Elias, AP/Nando Times, 11/27).
ACT scientist Jose Cibelli defended his company's research efforts yesterday at a meeting of the National Research Council as "just a new way of making medicine." Cibelli added that by carefully drafting legislation to make a distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning, lawmakers can ensure that human clones are not created. "If you're explicit about this and say whoever transfers (the cloned embryo) into the uterus is doing reproductive cloning and therefore will be subject to such and such punishment ... there shouldn't be any problem to try to avoid that," he said (Garvey, Los Angeles Times, 11/28). "What we are proposing is very controversial right now but we think it is the future of medicine," Cibelli said. "We have 136 million people who can be impacted by this technology," he added, explaining that stem cell research could lead to cures for illnesses such as heart disease, Alzheimer's and cancer. Cibelli offered to meet with White House officials and members of Congress to further explain his research and its potential implications (Fox, Reuters/Contra Costa Times, 11/27). He stated that human cloning research is hampered by a lack of donated eggs. "Human eggs are very precious and hard to come by," Cibelli said, explaining that if his firm could secure 200 to 300 eggs, it would have a 90% chance of establishing a new stem cell colony (AP/Boston Herald, 11/27).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.