More MS news articles for August 2001

House Votes Broad Ban On Cloning

Bill Is an Early Blow To Stem Cell Research

Wednesday, August 1, 2001; Page A01
By Rick Weiss and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers

The House yesterday passed a sweeping bill that would outlaw the creation of cloned human embryos for any purpose, whether to make cloned babies or to produce potentially therapeutic stem cells. The bill would also prohibit the importation of any medical treatments created abroad from cloned human embryo cells.

Sixty-three Democrats and two independents joined 200 Republicans to pass the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2001, dealing a preliminary blow to medical researchers and many patient advocates who had supported a more narrowly worded cloning ban. By a vote of 251 to 176, the House rejected an amendment favored by those advocates that sought to ban the creation of cloned babies but would have allowed private companies to create cloned human embryos and develop therapies from their cells.

Stem cells are versatile and show great potential for the treatment of many diseases, but their retrieval requires the destruction of human embryos. Some researchers believe that stem cells from cloned human embryos may be the most useful, because they might not be rejected by a patient's immune system. A U.S. company recently announced it had begun efforts to make cloned human embryos as sources of stem cells, and another has said it hopes to do so before long.

Yesterday's vote -- the first time Congress has grappled with the quickly evolving field of human cloning and stem cell research -- capped six hours of heated scientific and ethical debate, during which legislators feuded over the relative moral costs of experimenting on cloned human embryos and the scientific costs of banning such research. Ultimately, a majority came down on the side of caution.

"This sends a signal to the American people that the Congress is prepared to draw the line and ban human cloning," said Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.), the bill's primary sponsor.

But opponents of the bill played down the vote's significance. Noting that the Senate has in the past rejected similar anti-cloning legislation, they characterized yesterday's action in the House as an easy opportunity for many lawmakers to prove their conservative credentials before going home to their constituents Friday for a month-long recess.

Indeed, some supporters of stem cell research said they saw a silver lining to yesterday's loss. President Bush is poised to decide whether federal funds should be made available for research on human embryonic stem cells isolated from leftover embryos created through standard in vitro fertilization and slated for destruction at fertility clinics. By voting to oppose the creation of cloned human embryos, some observers said, lawmakers may believe they can afford to support funding -- with strict federal oversight -- of stem cell research on surplus conventional embryos.

"For Republicans who feel they may be going against their leadership by saying they favor federal funding for stem cell research, they can now say, 'See, I voted against human cloning,' so it gives them some cover," said a strategist working to gain approval of stem cell funding, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

During yesterday's debate, members on both sides described the vote as a pivotal decision that could have a huge impact on future generations. Several said they were humbled by the immensity of the issue. Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said, "This vote is about providing moral leadership for a watching world." Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) described it as a headlong rush into the unknown.

"It's Congress playing scientist," Slaughter said. "Make no mistake, my friends, we are treading through uncharted waters."

More than a few complained that they felt ill-prepared to make the right decision.

"This is cellular nuclear science, and there's almost no one of the 435 members here who understands this," said Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), who sponsored the failed amendment to limit the bill's scope.

At the core of that confusion is a tantalizing but unproven notion that the best way to get the benefits of embryonic stem cells may be to create cloned embryos from patients' own cells, so that the stem cells derived from those embryos are genetically identical to the patient and will not be rejected.

Scientists refer to that process as "therapeutic cloning," in contrast to "reproductive cloning," which refers to the creation of a fully developed cloned baby. Saying that a total ban on cloning could keep patients from gaining the benefits of therapeutic cloning, some scientists yesterday vowed to fight the legislation in the Senate.

"Today's vote is a step backwards and if enacted into law, which we doubt will happen, will reverse progress that could affect potentially millions of patients," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "We're going to call on the Senate to reflect more carefully and separate therapeutic cloning technologies from those used for reproductive cloning, which almost everyone agrees is repugnant and unsafe."

Criticism also came from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The group was "very disappointed . . . that the House has passed an irresponsible, over-reaching restriction on scientific research," spokesman Sean Tipton said. The Weldon bill, Tipton said, "prohibits American scientists from discovering potential cures for diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury. If other countries discover these cures, the Weldon bill would make it illegal for American patients to use them."

But several lawmakers said yesterday that no matter what the medical promise, they were not comfortable allowing the cloning of human embryos. Some said the process was morally reprehensible. Others focused on the practical difficulties of stopping someone from transferring a cloned embryo into a willing woman's womb, where it might grow into the world's first full-term human clone.

"There is a fine line between creation and implantation," said Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.).

Opponents of embryo research yesterday echoed scientists' warnings that the fight is not over.

"By a decisive bipartisan vote, the House has acted to block the creation of human embryo farms, but the biotech firms will begin this ghoulish industry soon unless the Senate also acts," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "The real agenda of the biotech industry is now revealed. Lethal research on embryos already created for infertile couples is only a stepping stone to mass produce human embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them."

The Senate version of the Weldon bill, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), is not scheduled for action, and some insiders predicted it would have a hard time getting the attention of Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). As an alternative, some Congress watchers said, the bill's language could appear as a rider to an appropriations bill.

But Brownback expressed optimism yesterday that his bill would gain momentum in the Senate. "We're building a strong coalition with the Green Party people, folks who supported the Nader candidacy," Brownback said. "That's starting to come together more and more."

The Virginia delegation split along party lines: Republican Reps. Eric I. Cantor, Jo Ann S. Davis, Thomas M. Davis III, J. Randy Forbes, Robert W. Goodlatte, Edward L. Schrock and Frank R. Wolf voted in favor along with Virgil H. Goode Jr. (I), and Democratic Reps. Rick Boucher, James P. Moran Jr. and Robert C. "Bobby" Scott voted against. In Maryland, Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R), Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Albert R. Wynn (D) voted in favor, and Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R), Constance A. Morella (R), Benjamin L. Cardin (D), Elijah E. Cummings (D) and Steny H. Hoyer (D) opposed the bill.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company