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Human Cloning Prohibition Act Passes House

An Expert Interview With Michael J. Werner, Esq, and Bill Saunders, JD

Mar. 3, 2003
Laurie Barclay, MD
WebMD staff writer

Editor's Note: On Feb. 27, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 241 to 155 for the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003 (H.R. 534). H.R. 534 bans reproductive as well as therapeutic cloning. It also states that receiving or importing a cloned human embryo or any product derived from a cloned human embryo is a crime punishable with fines of $1 million and 10 years in prison.

A similar bill that would ban all cloning is under consideration in the Senate, also called the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003 (S. 245). A competing bill, the Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2003 (S. 303) prohibits reproductive cloning, but would allow therapeutic cloning. Applications such as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) could develop new stem cell lines to study genetic diseases and to create genetically matched embryonic stem cells for cell and tissue transplants to treat diseases and injuries. However, opponents point out that SCNT is also a reproductive technology the one which Clonaid claims to have used to clone "Eve."

Although the House passed a bill similar to H.R. 534 in 2001, it failed to pass the Senate. Now that H.R. 534 has passed the House, its fate also lies in the Senate's hands. Both the new Senate majority leader, Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, and President George Bush support a ban on all cloning, including therapeutic cloning.

"Today's resounding bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives demonstrates concern for the profound moral and social issues posed by human cloning," President Bush said in a statement. "I urge the Senate to act quickly on legislation banning all human cloning."

To determine the ethical, research, and therapeutic ramifications of the potential outcomes, Medscape's Laurie Barclay interviewed Michael J. Werner, Esq., vice president of bioethics at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), and Bill Saunders, JD, director and senior fellow of the Family Research Council (FRC) Center for Human Life and Bioethics, both in Washington, D.C.

Medscape: Why is your group for (against) this bill?

Mr. Werner: We support a ban on reproductive cloning, but this bill goes too far. It bans research and innovation which could lead to cures and treatments for diabetes, cancer, and Parkinson's disease. It's an overreach.

Mr. Saunders: We support this bill because it bans all human cloning, and we don't accept any distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning.

Medscape: If this new bill becomes law, what effects will it have on medical research?

Mr. Werner: It will stop certain medical research, such as SCNT research, and it will severely restrict stem cell research. It will stigmatize a very promising field of research and force it abroad.

Mr. Saunders: It may not necessarily have any profound effects. If therapeutic cloning research were as promising as some claim, the stock market would be pouring tons of money into biotech companies pursuing this technology. But in fact, very few companies are funding this type of research. One salutatory effect this bill may have on research is to reiterate the concept that scientific research, just like any other field of human endeavor, must be subject to ethical limits.

Medscape: What effect would this bill have on availability of medications developed using SCNT techniques?

Mr. Werner: Once these techniques are developed abroad and have applications to human disease, citizens of the countries where it is developed will have access to this technology, and U.S. citizens will not. This bill would criminalize importation of these treatments, or even traveling abroad to gain access to these treatments.

Mr. Saunders: It's wholly speculative, because no such medications have yet been developed for use in humans, nor is it clear if they could be. There are other promising research developments addressing treatments for chronic diseases that do not involve cloning. Our position is that the process of so-called therapeutic cloning is unethical because it involves destruction of a human embryo. It's certainly not therapeutic for the clone. Whatever good result could theoretically follow is not worth violating ethical principles by destroying human life.

Medscape: Did Clonaid's publicity of cloned babies have any impact on the passage of this bill?

Mr. Werner: I don't know if the Clonaid situation really had much to do with it. I suppose the publicity might have catalyzed the situation a little, and the legislators may have seized the opportunity. But passage of this bill wouldn't have prevented the Clonaid situation anyway, because the supposed cloning didn't happen in this country.

Mr. Saunders: The Clonaid publicity may have refocused attention on the possibility of cloning, although similar claims have been made by Dr. Zavos' group.

Medscape: Do you have any comments concerning the likelihood that the alleged clones are in fact clones?

Mr. Werner: I think it's a scam. Scientists who specialize in cloning technology will say that their claims are highly unlikely to be true.

Mr. Saunders: My guess is it's not true. Most scientists who specialize in this area feel that it is extraordinarily difficult to successfully carry out the whole process of reproductive cloning to the point of live birth. But it is possible, and it could happen.

Medscape: What does your group believe concerning the feasibility, advisability, and ethical implications of reproductive cloning?

Mr. Werner: We're absolutely against it; it's therapeutic cloning that we support.

Mr. Saunders: Just to reiterate, the FRC feels that cloning is cloning, and that there really is no distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. That being said, there are specific arguments against reproductive cloning. It poses big problems in terms of health risks to the clone. Dolly the cloned sheep had to be put to sleep because of premature aging and excessive weight gain, which are common in cloned animals, as are unexpected and unexplained deaths.

Even if there were no health risks to the clone, reproductive cloning brings up many bizarre questions that require solutions. Is the clone the child or the identical twin of the DNA donor? It brings up legal questions, including inheritance issues, and troubling questions about family relationships. If a couple can't have children through sexual reproduction and they clone one of them, what would it be like to raise a child that looks identical to how the parent looked when he or she was growing up?

Then there's the issue of those who seek reproductive cloning to bring back a loved one, which is impossible because the clone will lack the personality and the life history of the child that died. The ultimate question is, are children products that we can manufacture in the laboratory to our specifications, or are they a gift? If we view them as products, the cloning debate foreshadows the whole ethical dilemma of genetic engineering. If we view them as a gift, we shouldn't make having a child an end above all other ends.

Medscape: Proponents of this bill have suggested that therapeutic cloning had to be included with reproductive cloning because the two techniques are virtually identical, and the bill would otherwise be unenforceable. Please comment on this.

Mr. Werner: That doesn't make any sense. The substitute bill, which we were promoting, would have set up a regulatory scheme including an institutional review board, informed consent, and other regulatory controls. This argument implies that embryos will be created and that the government wouldn't be able to stop surreptitious implantation. The substitute bill is no more or less enforceable than this one. We have many in vitro fertilization clinics and doctors who know how to implant embryos, so if someone wants to break the law as laid out in either bill, they can.

Why block legitimate research just because we're afraid someone will break the law? Certain uses of any technology should be legal and others should not. Any technology can be used inappropriately by that argument, we should ban handguns. We have laws that make it legal to carry a handgun, but murder by shooting is still illegal.

Mr. Saunders: Once you've legally cloned a human embryo, that embryo could be implanted in a woman, and then what? You'd have a situation where it would be illegal for that woman to give birth, unless you had a forced abortion, which would be illegal under Roe v. Wade. So a ban on reproductive cloning but not on therapeutic cloning would be unenforceable, because you couldn't stop the birth of the clone.

Once a life is created through cloning of any type, how are you obliged to treat it ethically? The alternative bill banning reproductive cloning essentially implies that all human embryos created for therapeutic cloning must be destroyed. All human life, whether cloned or not, starts as a zygote and continues through embryonic, fetal, and postnatal development. Destroying a cloned human embryo therefore amounts to taking a human life.

Medscape: If this bill passes the Senate, will there be more emphasis on research involving other sources of stem cells, such as cord blood, bone marrow, or animal sources? Are these alternative sources likely to be as effective as embryonic stem cells?

Mr. Werner: People who are trying to stop stem cell research have an ideological agenda. But every scientific body that has reviewed the literature has concluded that embryonic human stem cells have greater potential than other stem cells. If this bill puts a stop to embryonic stem cell research, there may well be more research with other sources of stem cells. Our push for embryonic stem cell research doesn't mean we don't support research with other sources of stem cells. Science is not a linear process we can let a thousand flowers bloom.

Mr. Saunders: I think there will be more emphasis on alternate forms of stem cells, including umbilical cord cells and adult stem cells, as well as on other techniques not involving stem cells. It appears there have been promising developments in these areas.

Medscape: What is the likelihood that this bill will pass the Senate?

Mr. Werner: It won't pass. Enough people who support therapeutic cloning research won't let it pass.

Mr. Saunders: I predict it will pass. There may be a filibuster, so the question would be if there will be enough votes to defeat a filibuster. But President Bush has said that he wants this bill, and that he would sign it. Although there are many reproductive choice groups on the left, I think there's room for bipartisan passage of the bill. It will be an interesting fight.

Medscape: At a time when the US seems to be odds with certain other nations on key issues, what are the political ramifications of legislation which might bring us ideologically closer to countries which support a total ban on cloning?

Mr. Werner: I don't really think our political differences with other countries should have any bearing on this issue. The United Nations (UN) tried to pass a convention saying you can't ban cloning, but the U.S. blocked it.

Mr. Saunders: I've been interviewed by journalists from Europe who say that what happens in the U.S. will have considerable impact on how other countries treat cloning. The debate in the UN is whether they should ban reproductive cloning alone, or ban both forms of cloning. The French seem to be moving toward a total ban, and many countries agree. Most of the world is close to the anti-cloning position. This is a position that most of the world favors, and if this bill passes, the U.S. will be right in step.

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

© 2003 Medscape