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White House announces support for comprehensive ban on human cloning

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Bush administration announced June 20 its support for a comprehensive ban on human cloning.

Pro-lifers welcomed the White House’s disclosure of its position at a congressional hearing on cloning legislation, but many remained concerned at the administration’s delay in revealing its stance on another volatile bioethical issue — federal funding of cell research on human embryos.

Claude Allen, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told members of the House of Representatives President Bush and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson “oppose any and all attempts to clone a human being,” according to written testimony. The administration is against cloning for the purpose of reproducing a child, as well as creating a human embryo for research, Allen told members of a subcommittee of the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee.

While there was widespread consensus among the witnesses for prohibiting reproductive cloning, those testifying before the Health Subcommittee were divided over banning cloning for research purposes. Representatives of the biotechnology industry, the Alliance for Aging Research and Harvard Medical School defended the cloning of embryos in order to seek cures for various diseases even though the destruction of such embryos is required.

Southern Baptist bioethicist Ben Mitchell called the administration’s position “the only sensible and effective solution to the problem.”

“We are standing at a moral and cultural crossroads,” said Mitchell, a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and an associate professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. “If we allow human beings to be designed and manufactured according to our wishes and after our own likeness, we will have crossed the threshold into a post-human age. We must resist the technocrats who would drive us beyond our own humanity. The future of our humanity truly hangs in the balance.”

Mitchell and such witnesses at the June 20 hearing as Leon Kass of the University of Chicago and Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have said there must be a ban on cloning for experimental
reasons not only because the practice would result in the destruction of embryos but because it is the only sure way of preventing reproductive cloning.

“Anyone truly serious about preventing human reproductive cloning must seek to stop the process from the beginning, at the stage where the human somatic cell nucleus is introduced into the egg,” Kass said in his written testimony. “Once cloned human embryos are produced and available in laboratories, it will be virtually impossible to control what is done with them. Huge stockpiles of cloned human embryos could … be produced and bought and sold in the private sector without anyone knowing it.”

The administration stopped just short of endorsing one legislative response to the possibility of human cloning. The Human Cloning Prohibition Act, H.R. 1644, “is consistent” with the administration’s position, Allen told the subcommittee. Some “technical issues” need to be resolved, however, he said.

The administration has a “major concern” with another bill, the Cloning Prohibition Act, H.R. 2172. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jim Greenwood, R.-Pa., would not ban cloning for research purposes.

Rep. Dave Weldon, R.-Fla., is the chief sponsor of H.R. 1644. Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., is the lead sponsor of a similar bill in the Senate.

The White House’s position was revealed a week after the Southern Baptist Convention adopted without opposition a resolution calling for Congress to pass a ban on all human cloning, including for purposes of research on embryos.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and others asked Bush in a June 4 letter to endorse the Weldon/Brownback bill. The other signers were James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family; Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship; William Bennett, former Department of Education secretary and codirector of Empower America; Ken Connor, president of Family Research Council; William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and chairman of The Bioethics Project, and Nigel Cameron, chairman of the Coalition for Biotechnology Policy.

While the administration signaled unity in its opposition to human cloning, recent news reports have indicated there is division on the issue of stem cell research. Thompson had indicated in April he expected a report on his desk in early June of a review ordered by Bush of guidelines issued last year in the Clinton administration permitting government funds for research using stem cells derived from embryos. The procurement of such cells requires the destruction of the embryos.

High-ranking officials in the administration are split over whether to allow funding for such research, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported.

Stem cells are primitive cells from which a wide variety of cells and tissues in the human body develop. Their isolation for the first time in late 1998 provided hope for treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.

The administration “must make clear very soon its position,” Mitchell said. “There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to delay a decision. The issue is clear — human embryonic stem cell research is illegal, immoral and unnecessary.

“The argument that there are people who need treatments that might come from the destruction of embryos is forceful but not ultimately compelling,” he said. “If we buy that argument, then the logic would drive us to destroy death-row prisoners for their organs or kill terminally ill patients for research purposes. Biotechnological cannibalism cannot be justified.”

The stem cell debate has become complicated by the actions of some senators who normally side with the pro-life position. Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina have expressed support for funding embryonic stem cell research.

The guidelines in question issued by the National Institutes of Health last August brought protests from pro-lifers inside and outside Congress. The guidelines allow federal funds to be used for the study of stem cells from early human embryos but not for the actual act of deriving such cells and thereby destroying the embryos. The extraction of the cells has to be privately funded to fit within NIH rules.

Congress adopted a measure in 1996 prohibiting federal support for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” The ERLC, as well as pro-life leaders in Congress and other pro-life organizations, criticized the NIH action last year as a violation of the federal law and of the sanctity of human life.

The Stem Cell Research Act, H.R. 2059, sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott, R.-Wash., would reverse the ban on funding embryonic stem cell research.

The Responsible Stem Cell Research Act, H.R. 2096, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., would fund research using stem cells from nonembryonic sources.

Recent studies have shown stem cells from such sources as umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow can be effective. Pro-lifers have supported the use of stem cells from such sources because the killing of a human being is not required. Recent research also has resulted in the production of cartilage, muscle and bone cells in the laboratory from cells found in human fat.