More MS news articles for May 2002

Smith adjusts stance on cloning

May 6, 2002

PORTLAND - Less than a year after a heartfelt speech supporting stem cell research to a Senate committee, U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith has changed his stance because he fears attempts at cloning a human being.

Smith has decided to vote this month to join President Bush in seeking a broad ban on human cloning that would block it not only for reproductive purposes but also for therapeutic research Smith has endorsed in the past.

Smith spokesman Chris Matthews said the Oregon Republican decided to support the ban because he fears that advances in the science of cloning embryos to manufacture stem cells will inevitably lead to cloning a human being.

"He believes that human cloning is prone to abuse," Matthews said. "Whatever possible benefits there are, the abuse that could come from humans' being born that are cloned far outweighs that."

The decision caught opponents of the cloning ban, co-sponsored by Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., by surprise. Given his past support for stem cell studies, they were counting on Smith's vote.

Smith's likely Democratic opponent in his Senate re-election bid, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, called the shift a "flip-flop" designed to placate anti-abortion groups that are leading the political drive to ban cloning.

"It's a tragedy that the medical research debate gets turned into this whole pro-life, pro-choice issue," said Bradbury, who has multiple sclerosis.

Matthews insisted that Smith hadn't reversed himself on stem cells or his longtime support for medical research. He said Smith consulted with several senators on both sides of the issue before making up his mind.

Stem cells, valued for their ability to grow into other body tissues that can be used to fight disease, can also be harvested from adults. But some scientists consider stem cells from embryos to have the best therapeutic potential.

The embryos can now be created through asexual cloning instead of by fertilization, a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Scientists remove the genetic material from an unfertilized egg and replace it with the material from a heart, skin or nerve cell from another person. With an electric jolt, the egg is coaxed into growing like a normal embryo, producing stem cells for harvest.

Anti-abortion groups claim the technology will lead to mass production of embryos solely to destroy them for their stem cells. Backers say that the fact the eggs are never fertilized casts the procedure in a different light and that potential medical gains far outweigh ethical concerns.

Leftover embryos at fertility clinics are another source of stem cells, but supporters say the new technique's potential is unique. Diseased cells could be replaced with healthy ones derived from stem cells that are a patient's genetic match, reducing the chance of immune rejection, supporters say.

The Brownback-Landrieu bill would ban the technique and make it illegal to import therapies derived from cloning. It is identical to a bill that passed the House by a 103-vote margin last year and was endorsed by Bush.

Opponents are backing a rival bill by Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would allow the technique but make it a crime to transfer cloned embryos to a woman's womb or an artificial equivalent. That would allow research to continue but prevent cloning a human, they say.

Both bills call for $1 million fines and up to 10 years in prison for violations.

Last summer, Smith told a congressional committee that because his religious beliefs as a Mormon hold that "life begins in a mother's womb, not in a scientist's laboratory," he could support research on embryos in an effort to find cures "for the most dreaded diseases on this planet."

"For me, being pro-life means helping the living as well," he said. "So if I err at all on this issue, I choose to err on the side of hope, healing and health." On Friday, Matthews told The Oregonian Smith has concluded that, as far as therapeutic cloning is concerned, the risks are too great.

"There is little doubt that once the technology is there, the law will not prevent, whether in the United States or another country, someone from producing a cloned human being," he said.

Copyrighted Fisher Communications, Inc. (KATU TV)