EVER SINCE President Bush limited federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research to existing cell lines, the mainstream media has obsessed about the perpetual political campaign to overturn his policy. But this is a mere dustup, a tempest in a teapot compared to the far more consequential story begging to be told of the radical and ambitious political agenda being pursued furiously by Big Biotech at the state level.

Back in those quaint old days of 2001, biotechnologists told us repeatedly that all they wanted for use in stem-cell research was access to leftover IVF embryos that were destined to be destroyed anyway. That gambit succeeded in getting a majority of Americans to support "embryonic stem-cell research."

But now, in a classic bait and switch, Big Biotech has dramatically upped its demands. No longer willing restrict researchers to using one-week-old leftover IVF embryos in stem-cell research, biotechnologists now demand a legal license to conduct human cloning research virtually without limit.

Recently enacted state laws and proposed legislation demonstrates this alarming trend:

New Jersey. This year New Jersey explicitly legalized the cloning of human embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the same technology used to make Dolly the sheep. The law casts all moderation aside by failing to prohibit implantation of these cloned embryos into wombs. This is important since that which is not illegal is, by definition, legal. The law then purports to prohibit the "cloning of a human being." That sounds meaningful, but, in legislation the devil is in the definitions. Here is how the term is defined:

As used in this section, "cloning a human being," means the replication of a human individual by cultivating a cell with genetic material [the SCNT cloning process] through the egg, embryo, fetal and newborn stages into a new human individual. [emphasis added]

Notice that the law only prohibits cloned babies from being born and becoming a "new human individual." Anything short of the newborn stage is thus permitted, meaning that biotechnologists are free to gestate cloned embryos and fetuses in real or artificial wombs for use in research--and even maintain them up to the very moment of birth.

Illinois. Legislation pending in Illinois is just as radical, intending to authorize an almost unlimited license to create natural and cloned embryos for stem-cell research and, like New Jersey, gestate them into fetuses. The legislation states:

That research involving the derivation and use of human embryonic stem cells, human embryonic germ cells, and human adult stem cells from any source, including somatic cell nuclear transplantation [cloning], shall be permitted. . . ." [emphasis added]

"Any source" is an extremely broad term that could mean natural embryos--including those made explicitly for use in research--cloned embryos, perhaps even genetically modified animal/human embryo hybrids, for example, such as those that biotechnologists in China have made using somatic cell nuclear transfer by inserting human DNA into animal eggs.

Gestation of embryos for research is also clearly permitted. Like New Jersey, the proposal does not prohibit implantation of experimental embryos into wombs. Moreover, the explicit mention of "embryonic germ cells" anticipates gestation, since these cells cannot be derived from embryos in a Petri dish but are harvestable from embryos/fetuses through the ninth week. More sneakily, the use of the term "adult stem cells" in the context of this bill also provides a completely open-ended research/gestation license since these cells are found not only in adults, but also in fetuses, newborn's, and children's bodies.

Delaware. Last year's failed Delaware Senate Bill-55, disingenuously entitled the "Cloning Prohibition and Research Protection Bill," purported to prohibit human cloning. But this was subterfuge. Yes, the legislation provided that "No person shall create or attempt to create a human being using somatic cell nuclear transfer or other cloning technologies." But the legislation then defined such cloning to mean, "implanting" a cloned embryo "for gestation and subsequent birth" [emphasis added]. Thus, had the legislation passed, biotechnologists could have created an embryo using SCNT, implanted and gestated it through the ninth month--so long as their purpose in doing so was not the birth of a cloned baby.

California. California's just passed Proposition 71 appears moderate by comparison. After all, it established a 12-day time limit for maintenance of SCNT cloned embryos that biotechnologists now have a state constitutional right to manufacture. But then again, California's biotechnologists should not let their hearts be troubled: The authors of Proposition 71 cleverly provided an escape hatch to this seemingly firm restriction by providing that the time period to conduct research "shall initially be 8-12 days after cell division begins" [emphasis added]. The word "initially" clearly implies that time limit will be extended once the billions of dollars of borrowed money that Proposition 71 will pour into SCNT research advances the science to the point that researchers are ready to move beyond experimenting with cloned embryos in Petri dishes.

The old assurance that only leftover IVF embryos will be used in stem-cell research is as dead as Yasser Arafat: The mainstream media just haven't printed the obituary. But people have the right to know that Big Biotech's ambitions now accept no reasonable limits.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.

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