Science & Technology in Congress
The recent successful cloning of an adult sheep has captured public attention and raised many serious and difficult policy issues for the federal government. Both Congress and the Administration have already taken action to limit human cloning research, and to ban the actual cloning of a human being. Many scientific experts, however, warn against swiftly implementing laws without thoroughly analyzing the real implications of cloning.
President Clinton set the stage for the cloning debate on March 4 by banning the use of federal funds for human cloning research, and requesting that the private sector voluntarily abstain from such research for a 90 day period. This would give the National Bioethics Advisory Commission time to investigate the implications of human and animal cloning and produce a report. The Commission was created by President Clinton in 1995, and consists of a panel of legal, ethical, and scientific experts. Over the next couple of months, the Commission will study the ethical and legal aspects of cloning, as well as compile a list of existing federal and state laws pertaining to cloning, such as restrictions on embryo research.
In the meantime, some members of Congress have taken action to make the President's moratorium on cloning research more permanent. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO) introduced legislation to prohibit the use of federal funds for research involving human cloning (S. 368). Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) introduced an equivalent bill in the House (H.R. 922), and also proposed a second piece of legislation making it illegal to clone a human being (H.R. 923). While Sen. Bond is emphasizing the moral problems with human cloning in defending his bill, Rep. Ehlers claims that his legislation is intended to protect scientific research in the long run. "It is very important to address this issue," said Rep. Ehlers. "If we do not, there may be legislation that might be far more adverse."
While scientists and ethicists generally agree that human beings shouldn't be cloned, the role of the government in regulating cloning and cloning research remains uncertain. According to scientists, cloning research has the potential to produce enormous health benefits. Dr. Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist who created Dolly, the cloned sheep, described some of these benefits to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Subcommittee on Public Health on March 12. Dr. Wilmut stated that cloning and the genetic manipulation it allows make it possible to create better genetically engineered animals which can be used to treat human diseases. Cloned and genetically modified animals may also be used to act as models for the study of human diseases. Eventually, believes Dr. Wilmut, his cloning technology may make it possible to regenerate human tissue, such as spinal cord tissue. While Dr. Wilmut expressed strong opposition to human cloning, he stated that we shouldn't "throw out this particular baby with the bath water" by passing overly restrictive legislation.
Dr. Harold E. Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also expressed concern over the proposed bills. At the hearing, he argued that in this case, "the discussion is actually running ahead of the science," because the possibility of cloning human beings is still remote, for technical reasons. For one thing, out of 277 embryos created through Dr. Wilmut's cloning technique, only Dolly survived. In addition to this fairly low success rate, there are difficulties involved in creating cloned human embryos that are not present in sheep (human embryonic cells begin differentiating at an earlier stage than those of sheep). Because cloning of humans thus seems far from imminent, Dr. Varmus believes that legislative action should be held off until the cloning issue can be fully investigated, otherwise some of the vast potential benefits may be lost.
Despite scientists' hopes of incredible biomedical advances through the use of Dr. Wilmut's technology, decades of science-fiction novels and movies have raised public awareness of the potential dangers of cloning, both real and fantastic. The proposed pieces of legislation, from Sen. Bond and Rep. Ehlers, would close the perceived gap in existing laws which do not specifically address cloning. In light of scientists' concerns that beneficial research activity may be restricted, Rep. Ehlers, a former physicist, has offered to alter the language of his bills to protect valid research. Sen. Bond, in support of his legislation to prohibit federal funding for human cloning research has said that it is morally unacceptable to clone a human being, and that the government should not support it. "Humans are not God, and we should not therefore try and play God," stated the Senator at the hearing on March 12.
The numerous debates surrounding cloning are likely to continue to rage for some time. Cloning and genetic manipulation are issues which challenge us to define the very nature of human identity, so any technology, such as cloning, which represents a new capacity for science to control human genes, will necessarily stimulate public discourse. At this point, however, there is very little opposition to the idea that human cloning is wrong, and that banning it is justifiable. The tricky part, then, is to craft legislation which is clear in discriminating between beneficial research involving cloning and actual wrongful cloning of people.
At this point, the initial excitment has died down and Congress seems in no danger of rushing cloning legislation. No markups have been announced for the bills which have already been introduced, and a wait-and-see attitude has prevailed over the initial media-driven hoopla. Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), a cardiologist as well as Chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Public Helath Subcommittee, articulated this attitude at the March 12 hearing, stating, "I say, before we legislate, we should get the dialogue going." Sen. Frist made the point that genetic manipulation resulting from cloning may come to be acceptable to the public and to policy makers, but only if a conscientious effort is made to explain and discuss the issues. To that end, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission will be working to produce its report by the end of May.
How to Clone an Adult Sheep
1. Take individual cells from an adult sheep's udder. Culture the cells in the lab and allow them to multiply.
2. Reduce the nutrients being fed to the cultured cells in order to stop their growth and render them "quiescent." This is the key to resetting the cells so that they are ready to stop acting like udder cells and start acting like embryo cells.
3. Remove the nuclei from a few of the now-quiescent cultured cells and transfer them to unfertilized sheep egg cells which have had their original nuclei removed. Implant the reconstituted egg in a surrogate mother-sheep.
4. Allow to gestate until birth. The resulting clone will be genetically identical to the original sheep.