Judging from the frenzy in Congress and state assemblies across the country, you'd think the cloning of people poses a greater threat to humanity than Saddam Hussein. Seven bills to ban the creation of duplicate humans have been introduced on Capitol Hill since Dolly the sheep was cloned in Britain a year and a half ago. Thirty-six similar bills are pending in 24 state legislatures, and California has already passed one.
No question, creating people by copying someone's genes is deeply offensive to many. As Ronald Cole-Turner of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary argues, "cloning would be an insult to the dignity of human life as creatures in the image of God."
But whatever one's religious views, this rush to ban cloning is distressingly ill-conceived. Many of the proposed restrictions would cripple important research. The most egregious example: a measure introduced in Florida last year to ban the cloning of all human cells. Since cloning cells is crucial for biomedical research, the bill would have prevented experiments on everything from the AIDS virus to the genes that cause cancer. The bill has since been toned down.
BAD SEED? Fact is, new restrictions aren't necessary. The Food & Drug Administration already has the power to quash attempts to clone people. Eccentric scientists such as Chicago-area physicist and fertility researcher Richard Seed can announce plans to open human-cloning clinics. But without FDA approval, they'll be committing a crime. And they won't get FDA approval: The chances of producing a normal, healthy human by cloning are still far too slim for the agency--or any responsible scientist--to permit it. "There's no threat from Dr. Richard Seed right now," says Carl B. Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
To their credit, congressional backers of cloning bans are trying to minimize the effect on research. Representative Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), for instance, is sponsoring a measure that specifically permits cloning plants, animals, and virtually every nonhuman type of cell. With some lawmakers calling for far more draconian measures, "I thought I was doing industry a favor," says Ehlers. "My bill provides protection for 99.99% of the research they want to do."
But his bill could be more harmful than that. It essentially prohibits the use of any cell from a person to create a clone. Yet a hugely promising area of research involves growing new cells to replace, say, damaged pancreases in diabetics. And one approach to creating these cells is to transfer the nucleus from a human cell into an egg. The resulting embryo--a clone--could then be tweaked to grow into any type of cell.
This process in itself is wildly controversial. At the heart of the issue, says Dolly creator Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Scotland, is the question: "Is it right to produce an embryo as a source of cells?" Many scientists and doctors say yes. But abortion foes, who have won bans on any federal funding for human-embryo research, are appalled. And their opposition explains why any cloning ban Congress passes likely will slam the door on this type of research.
That would be a mistake. "What's at stake here are life-saving technologies, the only hope for thousands afflicted with Parkinson's disease, diabetes, cancer, and other deadly and disabling diseases," argues Origen Therapeutics Inc. Chairman Michael D. West. This is an exaggeration, of course, but West's comments do contain a big nugget of truth.
QUICK FIX. Congress' best course of action? Do nothing. If gaps appear in the FDA's authority, lawmakers could enact a quick fix. Or if they have to take a stand now, they could pass a bill like the one proposed by Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). It would bar implantation of an embryo clone into a woman's womb, preventing the birth of a cloned child but not thwarting a promising technology. Further, the ban would be reevaluated in 5 and 10 years, giving scientists and lawmakers a chance to reconsider the law in light of new research.
Religious fervor aside, whether cloning is morally acceptable boils down to one simple question. As Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, puts it: "Is it really in the interests of a person to be made in someone else's image?"
The answer may be no. But better to explore these ideas than to close the door prematurely on cloning--and run the risk of curbing enormously promising research.