By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 5, 2002; Page A02
Adding fuel to an already heated debate, opponents of human embryo cloning are broadcasting provocative radio and television ads claiming that U.S. scientists plan to establish horrific "human embryo farms."
The ads are the latest installment in an increasingly vitriolic battle over several cloning bills now before the Senate. All the bills would ban the creation of cloned babies. But one, introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), would additionally outlaw studies on cloned human embryos -- a line of research that scientists believe may lead to new cures but which opponents believe is unethical.
Anticipating a vote within the next month, proponents of the research are gearing up with a publicity campaign of their own, with the backing of several big Hollywood names.
Christopher Reeve of "Superman" fame, paralyzed in an equestrian accident, is emerging as a leading advocate for embryo cell research, which scientists say could lead to new treatments for spinal injuries. Also getting involved are Jerry Zucker, the Hollywood director of "Ghost," and his wife Janet, with whom he produced "Rat Race"; Doug Wick, whose Red Wagon Entertainment recently produced the Oscar-sweeping "Gladiator"; and Lucy Fisher, his wife and the former vice chairman of Sony Pictures who oversaw the box office hits "Men in Black" and "Jerry Maguire."
The four have children with juvenile diabetes, a disease for which stem cells show therapeutic promise. They will introduce their campaign in advance of a Senate hearing on cloning today.
The unusual public relations battle took on an air of added immediacy last week as Britain finalized a national policy allowing research on cloned and other human embryos and grant money began to flow. With embryo research poised to expand there, British officials spoke openly of the opportunity to draw American talent in "a reverse brain drain" and perhaps overtake the United States in the hot new field of regenerative medicine.
At issue is research on embryonic stem cells, which scientists hope to model into a host of cures. Some experts suspect that stem cells derived from cloned human embryos will prove especially useful. Opponents say stem cells from adults or from conventionally produced embryos may prove just as versatile without breaching any new ethical frontiers.
Last fall the House passed a broad ban like Brownback's, and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) promised a floor vote by this month. Although the Senate is behind schedule, a cloning vote could come up by early April, aides say. So both sides are racing to influence undecided senators and the public.
The National Right to Life Committee kicked things off on Feb. 25 with a radio advertising campaign in seven Utah cities asking citizens to urge Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) to "say no to embryo hatcheries."
"Some biotechnology corporations are working on a nightmare project," the ad says. "They plan to mass-produce human embryos, then kill them in experimentation. They plan to start human embryo farms."
Hatch is in the spotlight because he broke ranks with other conservatives on stem cells last year. Although he opposes abortion, he supported research on spare embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics -- research that President Bush ultimately allowed, with severe limitations.
The new debate focuses on whether scientists should be allowed to make cloned human embryos for experiments, raising at least two ethical issues not in play in last year's stem cell debate: It calls for the creation of embryos explicitly for research, as opposed to relying on those already created for reproductive purposes. And it involves not just embryos, but cloned embryos. That raises the possibility, however remote, that someone might transfer one to a woman's womb and help her give birth to the world's first cloned baby.
John D. Gearhart, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University, ridiculed the "embryo farm" ads.
"It's so far from reality," Gearhart said. In fact, he said, scientists' major goal is to cultivate cells, or "cell lines," from embryos, and then grow those cells and use them as cures.
"Our intent, once we get these lines going, is never to touch another embryo," he said.
Other scientists have said they do hope to produce multiple clones. But they question whether the term "embryo" applies to cells created without sperm and they object to the word "farm," with its connotation of vast acreage.
A separate ad campaign is putting pressure on Daschle and the Democratic senators from Georgia, Max Cleland and Zell Miller. The nine-day series of 30-second television ads started airing in those two states Feb. 26 and will move to other key states in weeks to come. The series was created for Stop Human Cloning, a group chaired by conservative activist William Kristol.
"With these ads we're taking the debate to the American people," Kristol said, "and we're confident that they will urge their senators to close this door leading to the horrors of the Brave New World."
The TV spot starts with a male doctor in surgical scrubs. "Many doctors and scientists oppose cloning," he says.
"Because the therapeutic value is very dubious," a woman in a white lab coat adds.
"And cloning an embryo creates a human life," a white-collared minister continues.
"That should not be destroyed for experiments," a male doctor concludes.
The ad then encourages viewers to call their senators, whose names are flashed on the screen with the words "still undecided."
The ad's use of physician images has angered some. "Most medical groups that have taken a stand on this have been supportive of this research," including the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and the Association of American Medical Colleges, said ASRM spokesman Sean Tipton.
Adding to the pressure on Daschle, both houses of the South Dakota state legislature in late February passed a resolution urging Congress to pass Brownback's bill. South Dakota state law defines even "single-celled human embryos" as members of the human species.
Meanwhile, supporters of embryo cloning are organizing a multifaceted lobbying effort of their own.
Adding their entertainment industry influence to an established coalition of patient groups and biotechnology interests, Wick, Fisher and the Zuckers have turned their special interest in diabetes into the National Stem Cell Research Coalition.
"A lot of people lose their life to this disease," said Zucker, whose diabetic daughter, Katie, turns 14 next week. "Katie said to us, 'They call themselves the right-to-life people, but don't I have a right to my life?' "
The group intends to contact lawmakers, conduct fundraisers like the "Rat Race" screening it held last year that raised $400,000 for research, and perhaps produce a documentary that will educate the public about the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research.
"We think if people understood what they were talking about, they'd also be in support of this research," Janet Zucker said.
Reeve, too, has been speaking up more as Congress gets closer to making its move. "I disagree with the idea that cloning research will lead us down the slippery slope to reproductive cloning," he said.
Reeve also warned against the United States falling behind in medicine as a result of the Brownback bill, which would outlaw not only domestic embryo clone research but also the importation of treatments developed by such research overseas.
"I would go to the U.K. or anywhere
in the world for a safe and effective therapy that would lead to recovery,"
Reeve said. "We are in danger of falling behind when we should be the leaders
of science as we always have been."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company