The Magazine

Defending Life and Dignity

How, finally, to ban human cloning.

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By LEON R. KASS
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The faction opposed to embryonic stem cell research wanted to safeguard nascent human life. Its proposed anti-cloning legislation (the Weldon-Stupak bill in the House, the Brownback-Landrieu bill in the Senate) would ban all human cloning--both for reproduction and for biomedical research--by banning the initial step, the creation of cloned human embryos. (This is the approach I have favored, largely because I thought it the most effective way to prevent the production of cloned children.) But most of the bill's pro-life supporters cared much more that embryos not be created and sacrificed than that children not be clones. Accordingly, they sought to exploit the public's known opposition to cloning babies to gain a beachhead against creating embryos for destructive research, which practice, although ineligible for federal funding, has never been illegal in the United States. Initially, this strategy worked: In the summer of 2001, the Weldon-Stupak bill passed the House by a large bipartisan majority. (It has been passed again several times since.) But momentum was lost in the Senate, owing to delays caused by 9/11 and strong lobbying by the pro-stem cell forces, after which time an impasse was reached, neither side being able to gain enough votes to close debate.

Concerned that the United States appeared to be incapable of erecting any moral barriers to the march toward a Brave New World, the President's Council on Bioethics (I was then its chairman) sought to show the president and Congress a way forward. Setting aside our deep divisions (on the moral status of human embryos and federal funding of stem cell research), we successfully sought common ground and recommendations on which we could all agree.

In our 2004 report, Reproduction and Responsibility, we unanimously proposed a series of legislative bans to defend human procreation against certain egregious practices--practices that would blur the boundary between the human and the animal, exploit the bodies of women, deny children the right to normal biological lineage, and commodify nascent human life. We called for legislative moratoria on: the placement of a human embryo in the body of an animal; the fertilization of a human egg by animal sperm (or vice versa); the transfer of a human embryo to a woman's uterus for purposes other than producing a child; the buying, selling, and patenting of human embryos or fetuses; and (on the cloning front) the conception of a child other than by the union of egg and sperm, both taken from adults--a provision that would ban cloning as well as other unwelcome forms of reproduction.

Though these recommendations received a favorable response from the White House and from some members of Congress (in both parties), our recommendations were attacked from both sides. The scientists and the assisted-reproduction professionals, as anticipated, wanted no restrictive federal legislation whatsoever. Surprisingly, we were hit also from the right: Several leading pro-lifers objected to the "children's provision" on the ground that it appeared to be a retreat from the Brownback total ban on cloning--a bill they nevertheless conceded had no chance of passage in the Senate. To my astonishment, some powerful lobbyists privately told me they objected also to the animal-transfer provision, on the grounds that one should not ban any method that might rescue "extra" IVF embryos that would otherwise die. (When pressed on this point, one interlocutor said that she would gladly give a child a pig for a mother if that were the only way to rescue an otherwise doomed embryo!)

Of the Council's sensible recommendations, only one has been enacted: a ban on initiating a pregnancy for any purpose other than to produce a child. (This bill, enacted as an anti-"fetal-farming" rather than a defense of women measure, also amended the existing statute to forbid the use of cells or tissues derived from a human embryo gestated in an animal.)

Fast forward to 2008. We are in the last year of the Bush presidency. Despite the president's numerous calls for action, we remain the only major nation in the high-tech world that cannot summon itself to ban human cloning, thanks to the standoff over the embryo issues. Fortunately, science has given Congress another chance to act. In the last six months, the scientific landscape has changed dramatically. On the one hand, the need for anti-cloning legislation is now greater than ever; on the other hand, there are reasons why a new approach can succeed.