The Magazine

Knock Off the Cloning

Congress debates the hows and whys of a ban

Jun 18, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 38 • By ERIC COHEN
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AFTER A FAILED EFFORT to ban human cloning in 1998, Congress has taken up the issue once again. There have been hearings in both the House and the Senate, testimony from fertility doctors and cult leaders who want to clone human beings, and heavy rhetoric about the coming of a Brave New World.

In the coming legislative showdown over how—or whether—to ban human cloning, there are two basic alternatives. The first is the Weldon-Brownback bill, which would ban the cloning of human embryos no matter the purpose, while still allowing some forms of scientific research, like "cloning DNA molecules" and "duplicating stem cells." A much looser approach, favored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and Representative James Greenwood, would ban "reproductive cloning"—the creation of cloned embryos with the intention of bringing them to birth. But it would allow "therapeutic cloning"—the creation of cloned human embryos that can be used for research so long as they are eventually destroyed.

All the action, for now, is in the House. The Democratic Senate does not see this as a top priority. Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer, in a March press conference, said President Bush "believes that no research—no research—to create a human being should take place" and "he opposes it on moral grounds." But the Bush administration—still in bureaucratic limbo over whether to fund federal research on embryonic stem cells—has put little pressure on members of Congress to take decisive action against human cloning. And Fleischer’s statements can be construed to support either Weldon-Brownback or BIO-Greenwood.

Meantime in the House, there is a battle brewing. This March, Greenwood, a five-term Republican from the Philadelphia suburbs, chaired the first Bush-era hearings on human cloning in the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. Greenwood’s rhetoric was impressive—mixing quotations from Aldous Huxley, Shakespeare, and G.K. Chesterton with pleas for caution "before we open the floodgates to a new kind of human being."

But Greenwood is, in this debate, the biotech industry’s man. In 1998, he won BIO’s award as "Legislator of the Year." And while BIOwould prefer a "moratorium" on reproductive cloning to an outright ban, the biotech industry seems likely to embrace any "pro-therapeutic cloning" legislation that Greenwood puts forward.

In the meantime, Dave Weldon, a Republican from Florida and a practicing physician, has gathered over 100 cosponsors, including 18 Democrats, for the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, which is being pushed by Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, in the Senate. The case for the bill—both that cloning threatens human nature and human dignity and that in order to stop "reproductive cloning" Congress must stop all embryonic cloning—is made most eloquently by bioethicist Leon Kass, who testified last week before the Judiciary Committee:

This is not an issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice. It is not about death and destruction or about a woman’s right to choose. It is only and emphatically an issue of baby-design and manufacture, the opening skirmish of a long battle against eugenics and against a "post-human" future. Once embryonic clones are produced in laboratories, the eugenic revolution will have begun. And we shall have lost our best chance to do anything about it and to assume responsible control over where biotechnology is taking us.

The Weldon bill itself lays out in great detail the case for a comprehensive ban on cloning: A world of therapeutic cloning would mean the multiplication in laboratories of endless numbers of cloned embryos. At the same time, the in-vitro fertilization industry is completely unregulated. Implantation of an embryo in the womb is both a simple and completely private procedure, protected under the doctor-patient relationship. And once an embryo were implanted, there would be no way to enforce a ban on reproductive cloning short of forced abortion.

A few weeks ago, the House leadership held a private meeting to decide on a strategy for moving a ban on human cloning to the floor—and, more significantly, on which ban to move. The meeting included Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, James Sensenbrenner (chairman of the Judiciary Committee), Billy Tauzin (chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee), Greenwood, and Weldon. Armey, a leader in the effort to ban cloning in 1998, threw his weight behind the Weldon bill. He called for another round of hearings in the Judiciary Committee (which began last Thursday and included Kass’s testimony), with the intention of moving the Weldon bill (or its equivalent) to the floor for a vote "by August, hopefully earlier."