March 5, 2002
MSNBC STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
The U.S. debate over human cloning heated up on Tuesday, with opponents launching a strong advertising campaign raising the specter of “embryo hatcheries” and Hollywood weighing in on the side of supporters who say the technology can transform medical research. Each side is reaching out for the hearts and minds of Americans and, more immediately, of a few undecided senators.
RIVAL SENATE bills would either outlaw the use of cloning technology altogether in humans, or allow it if the tiny embryo created was never destined to become a baby. With a vote expected this spring, it is not clear which side will prevail.
Last year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would impose a total ban on all human cloning. President George W. Bush has said he would sign such a bill into law if it gained final congressional approval.
The argument fosters dramatic language. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who supports using cloning technology in medical research, called it “the most important vote involving medical science in modern times” and said opponents might take the country back to “the Dark Ages.”
Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who supports a Senate bill that would ban cloning, retorts with equal color.
“The human body is not a commodity to be mass-produced and stripped for its parts,” she told a hearing on Tuesday of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, whose members are influential in setting health policy.
The point of using the technology — properly called somatic cell nuclear transfer — is to create tiny embryos that can be used as a source of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to become any kind of cell in the body.
“The cellular and tissue transplants that could emerge from this technology could benefit tens of millions of Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, cancer, spinal cord injuries, stroke, and heart disease,” Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said in a statement.
Theoretically, a new heart or kidney could be engineered from a plug of a patient’s own skin.
But opponents argue that creating a tiny embryo and keeping it alive only long enough to harvest its cells constitutes murder. They said work with adult stem cells, found in bone marrow and in various tissues, may be as promising, although many scientists say both routes need to be followed.
Last autumn, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, introduced a bill that would make the cloning of a human a crime but allowing research involving nuclear transplantation — so-called therapeutic cloning. A rival bill sponsored by Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback would outlaw all cloning research that would destroy human embryos.
The debaters do not fall neatly into two camps.
Some anti-abortion politicians, such as Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, support therapeutic cloning. The National Academy of Sciences, the preeminent gathering of scientists in the United States, urges support of cloning technology but said reproductive cloning to make a human baby should be banned.
The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, lobbying for human cloning research, has recruited Hollywood to its effort. Director Jerry Zucker, whose daughter has juvenile diabetes, joined a news conference on Tuesday with actor Christopher Reeve, who hopes the research may one day heal the spine injury that confines him to a wheelchair.
CHRISTOPHER REEVE SPEAKS OUT
Reeve said Americans typically are afraid of new science until they see what it can do, pointing to opposition to technology that now produces thousands of “test tube” babies every year and that mixes human genes with those of animals and bacteria to make medicines.
“(There is) a fear factor in this country that really is very disturbing to watch,” Reeve said.
A major problem, according to Reeve and others, is that many Americans, including some elected officials, do not understand either the complex science of cloning and stem cells or its terminology.
At a recent conference in New York, Reeve suggested that the word “cloning” be dropped from the debate, as it conjures up images of many duplicate humans, not a therapeutic source of potentially lifesaving stem cells.
The actor often cites the theoretical case of a firefighter who arrives at the scene of a blazing fire where there is an injured police officer in one corner and a petri dish with stem cells taken from an embryo in another. No one would criticize the firefighter for saving the life of the police officer and leaving the petri dish, according to Reeve.
His point: The stem cells do not constitute a human life, while the police officer does.
A diverse group of conservatives, environmentalists and church leaders, such as Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are lining up in opposition.
“Imagine companies being able to control the processes, the components, at the very beginning of the book of life,” Rifkin told a news conference. “We are going to try and enlist as many from the left, progressive community as possible.”
“We need to act before the technology overtakes the debate,” Brownback added.
This idea is echoed in an advertising campaign launched this week by the National Right to Life Committee urging Utah voters to tell Hatch to “say no to human embryo hatcheries.”
The group “Stop Human Cloning” has
similar ads in Georgia and North Dakota, whose senators are undecided on
Reuters contributed to this story.
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