The Magazine

While the Senate Sleeps

Dec 10, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 13 • By J. BOTTUM, FOR THE EDITORS
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AROUND THANKSGIVING--under a headline in the New York Times that read "24 Cow Clones, All Normal, Are Reported by Scientists: A Challenge to Arguments Against Human Cloning"--a company called Advanced Cell Technology announced that there was no need to fear cloning, for it had succeeded in perfecting the necessary techniques. Further down in the article, one learned that to get those 24 cows the company had had to create 500 clones, 470 of them lost before birth and another 6 after. That doesn't seem a promising success rate, but the project director, Dr. Robert Lanza, insisted that it showed the pointlessness of legislation banning human cloning. Such a ban passed the House by 265 to 162 but has sat in the Senate for three months without action. In the interim, opponents of cloning have tried "to portray human cloning as dangerous and irresponsible"--ah, but now, Lanza explained, we can "put some science in here, some reality."

It was a marvelously timed piece of propaganda, for just as the Times was reporting the cow clones, Advanced Cell Technology was releasing advance copies of a Scientific American article in which it detailed its creation of embryonic human clones. Once again, the success rate wasn't promising; most of the attempts died within a day. But a few lasted for five days, and the company's chief executive, Michael West, was suddenly everywhere--on television, radio, quoted in newspapers around the world: a newborn media star proclaiming the wonders of cloning.

Much of the debate in the days since has swirled around the Democratic leadership's refusal to allow the legislation banning cloning to come to the Senate floor. Majority leader Tom Daschle promised there would be a debate on the issue this spring, and he seems to think that means, by God, the debate shouldn't happen a day before spring--even if we're knee-deep in clones by then.

After the Advanced Cell Technology announcement, Sen. Sam Brownback, who is the lead sponsor of the ban on cloning in the Senate, demanded immediate consideration of that legislation, or at least of a temporary ban on cloning until the legislation could be debated in the spring. President Bush weighed in in support of Brownback's effort, as did an expanded coalition of liberal and conservative groups. As of this writing, there is talk of attaching a temporary cloning ban to the continuing resolution in the House, and Senate minority leader Trent Lott has promised to offer a six-month moratorium as an amendment to other legislation. Either of these ought to pass, but neither is likely to. Lott's amendment--a sort of omnibus rider attached to a bill reforming the railroad retirement system--includes opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, which is likely to scare off environmentalist allies in the fight against cloning.

Why is this so hard to do? Why is the default position allowing Michael West and Advanced Cell Technology--the recipient of at least $3.56 million from the federal government in just over a year--to play with our genetic future as much as they like? Why don't we prohibit cloning until there is a serious Senate debate, instead of encouraging it?

The Weekly Standard has editorialized before about the dangers of cloning: its moral fecklessness, its permanent establishment of the Brave New World project, and its utter disrespect for human life. Does anyone actually imagine that the cure for all disease lies within our grasp, if only the Republicans would set aside their worries about cloning? Does anyone really suppose that the moral sense of biotechnology researchers is sufficiently fine that we can leave them entirely unregulated? Hairdressers and taxicab drivers face more significant legal constraints, and they don't get millions in government grants to help them out.

But we aren't at the point of having that argument yet. We are only at the point of asking why we can't ban the cloning of people for a few months while we think about it. There is no answer to this question except the Senate's desire to avoid facing the issue. No one believes that human clones are mandatory for stem-cell research over the next few months.