Johnson, Thune disagree on research ban
August 4th, 2002
The specter of making genetic copies of human beings - and with it the potential to cure diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer - is coloring America's political discourse from the halls of the nation's Capitol to the race for the U.S. Senate in South Dakota.
It wasn't that long ago that cloning was futuristic fodder for science fiction movies. Today, however, scientists have genetically copied sheep, cats and more, and say it is possible to do the same with people.
Nearly every medical ethicist and politician condemns the cloning of one human being to create another. But the promise of stem cells from cloned embryos, which could possibly regenerate diseased tissues, piqued the interest of scientists.
In South Dakota, the issue has emerged in the vigorous Senate campaign, in which incumbent Tim Johnson, a Democrat, faces a challenge from U.S. Rep. John Thune, a Republican.
Thune supports a ban on any kind of cloning. Johnson would allow it for medical research under strict oversight.
The largely technical discussion is fired by ethics and parallels the debate on abortion to some extent.
"It deals with the same issue, the dignity of human life," says the Rev. James Mason, medical-moral adviser for Bishop Robert Carlson of the Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese. "We cannot create life to destroy it. But cloning is a harder battle when you have someone with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's seeing this Ôas a way to cure me.' Nobody says abortion is a cure for a disease. Abortion (is something) people can get a grasp on, but cloning to people is more like science fiction."
Two types of cloning are part of the discussion: therapeutic and reproductive.
Reproductive is the creation of an exact copy of another human being.
Therapeutic is the harvest of stem cells for research that is said to open medical doors to possible cures of diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cancer.
Alan Clem, retired University of South Dakota political science professor, says he wouldn't have pinpointed cloning as one of the hot topics in the election earlier this year but now sees the potential for discussion.
"When you are talking about embryos, that is what abortion comes down to. But there are many sides in this issue, like medical uses. That may, for some, make it more acceptable," Clem says.
Variety of legislation
The U.S. House already has approved a ban on all cloning, but the issue is under consideration in the U.S. Senate,where three measures are on the front burner:
¤ The Brownback-Landrieu bill would ban reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The bill is supported by President Bush. Thune supported a similar ban in the House.
¤ The Dorgan bill permits human cloning for research purposes but not reproduction. Johnson and Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota were original co-sponsors of that legislation, but both withdrew their names from the bill because the language did not reflect their stance. Wording included mention of a cloned embryo in a female uterus, which could cause some to think it would lead to human cloning, Johnson says.
¤ The Feinstein-Specter-Kennedy-Hatch bill bans reproduction but it provides for therapeutic cloning. It also carries a provision, forwarded by Republican Sen. Orin Hatch of Utah, requiring all cloners of embryos to first obtain approval of their research by a scientific and ethics advisory board.
Johnson, Thune views
While the vote awaits, Johnson says he has staked out a firm position.
"I am adamantly opposed to cloning for reproductive purposes. The focus of this debate should be on lifesaving research that may lead to cures for dreaded diseases such as cancer, juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's," he says.
Johnson says he does not come to this position lightly. It is based on conversation after conversation with South Dakota families who have come to him pleading him to allow this potentially lifesaving research to go forward.
Thune says his vote in favor of the ban in the House was clear-cut.
"It is not appropriate in South Dakota for cloning in any form. It is a dangerous thing to start interfering with Mother Nature. I'm on the right side of this issue," he says.
Thune says he thinks there are more ethical and effective ways to move forward with research without sacrificing human life.
Research from existing stem cell lines has yielded tremendous results and holds enormous promise for finding cures for some of the most devastating diseases without cloning embryos, he says.
"There is no scientific difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The only difference is intent. A half ban is no ban at all," Thune said.
Others cite the research on adult stem cells as a less ethically problematic alternative to embryonic stem cell research. Some doctors say, however, that there is a difference between stem cells taken from adults, and the more versatile cells of embryos.
The House plan does allow for scientific research using cloning techniques other than on human embryos. In other words, the bill allows the cloning of DNA, tissues, organs, plants or animals for research purposes to find cures for disease and other illnesses.
Bush: No human cloning
President Bush was lobbied early on both sides of the issue but has taken a strong stance in favor of a ban on creating embryos. He did, however, allow for limited research on existing stem cells already available.
"I believe all human cloning is wrong, and both forms of cloning ought to be banned," the president said during a major speech on the issue in April. "First, anything other than a total ban on human cloning would be unethical. Research cloning would contradict the most fundamental principle of medical ethics, that no human life should be exploited or extinguished for the benefit of another."
There is still uncertainty about when and if the cloning debate might come up in the Senate.
Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and the sponsor of the total ban, rejected an offer from Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota to bring both his measure and the Kennedy bill to the floor.
In a recent news conference, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi supported Daschle's move, saying the Democrat did what he promised Brownback he would do.
Daschle spokesman Jay Carson says the source of Brownback's objection is unclear. Ultimately, the Senate needs to move on with business, Carson says.
Daschle supports the Kennedy measure with the Hatch amendment, which provides for strict oversight of any research, Carson says. "He reached the conclusion that the potential of this research to save millions of lives and cure some of the most debilitating diseases known to man is just too great to ignore," Carson says. "He agrees with Senator Hatch, someone whose pro-life credentials are beyond reproach, that this is a pro-life position, allowing sick and ailing and dying people to live."
Earlier this year, the issue was addressed in South Dakota in an exchange of radio advertisements in the U.S. Senate race.
South Dakota Right To Life raised the issue first and has run three radio ads on the subject. The first has a man talking with his wife, telling her about the possibility to clone human embryos "and then kill them for their parts."
A woman responds: "That's why President Bush urged the Senate to pass the Brownback bill, to ban the cloning of human embryos. The House already passed it, with Congressman Thune's support. But Senator Daschle is opposed, so it might not pass."
Former state Sen. Doris Miner, who has battled multiple sclerosis for 25 years, spoke on the counter radio ad paid for by the South Dakota Democratic Party.
"Finally, there is real hope. Research that's going on right now could hold the key to curing MS and hundreds of other diseases, research Congressman John Thune wants stopped."
She said Thune is not telling the people what Johnson says about research cloning.
"The truth: Senator Johnson is working to pass legislation that prevents cloning but still allows for responsible research into diseases like mine and other diseases like Alzheimer's, juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's," Miner says in the ad.
The debate may become as intense as the abortion discussion in the country, and Kathy Gunderson, executive director of South Dakota Right to Life, says people must become educated about the issue.
"Cloning is sacrificing one human life for the betterment of another. It is not ethical, not moral, not right. With all the scientific hype we get from media, people need to be educated," Gunderson says.
There is no evidence that the stem cell research would do what is suggested in assisting another human being's medical condition, she says.
In February, the South Dakota House of Representatives and the South Dakota Senate passed a concurrent resolution "urging the U.S. Congress to pass, and the president of the United States to sign, legislation that completely bans human cloning."
The resolution also urged the passage of Brownback's cloning bill and passed the Legislature with heavy bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
"That speaks loudly," Gunderson says.
Helen Boyer of Sioux Falls has been slowed by post-polio syndrome, but she isn't looking at this approach to help her.
"I am definitely against killing embryos for cloning, even if it helps me. That is not God's plan. You will not find anything in the Bible to say this is OK," she says.
All Roberta Rassmusen has to do is look around her Viborg community to support her feelings that the priority needs to be lifesaving research.
"I guess I have known quite a few people who have Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and some of the diseases that affect people I love. I think it is important that we have medical research. Sometimes, I think we limit ourselves when we don't get all the facts," she says.
Medical research is also the issue for state Sen. John McIntyre, a Sioux Falls Democrat. He is hesitant to support a ban on cloning.
"I hate to leave out options. Human cloning, I don't want to do that. But if there is the possibility that we can help humanity, I would like to investigate it thoroughly," he says.
McIntyre expects the issue to become a larger part of the campaign for U.S. Senate this year.
"Pretty much everything is going to be a part of this campaign," he says.
Reach reporter David Kranz at 331-2302
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