Science &Technology in Congress
On June 7, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) released "Cloning Human Beings," its much-anticipated report on the ethical, legal, and social implications of human cloning. Using the report's recommendations, the Administration has drafted legislation to extend the current ban on federal funding for research involving the cloning of a human being. Some members of Congress, however, feel that the NBAC recommendations do not go far enough in providing guidance on the emotionally-charged issues of cloning and genetic manipulation.
The NBAC report focuses on the technology which was used to create the now-famous Dolly, a lamb successfully cloned from the cells of an adult sheep. To create Dolly, nuclear material from a cell of the original sheep was transplanted into a fertilized egg. The egg developed into an embryo which was later born as Dolly. Dolly is, in effect, a later-born twin of the original sheep, bearing the same genetic code. This cloning technique is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer.
The report concludes that, at this time, it is wrong to try to create a child through somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning. NBAC's main reason for arriving at this conclusion was widespread concern that this new cloning technique poses unacceptable risks to the developing fetus. In addition to safety concerns, the report states that there is a need to more fully discuss the ethical and legal issues which have been identified. Drawing from these conclusions, the report recommends that the federal government implement carefully worded legislation to prohibit the creation of a child through cloning while preserving the benefits that other scientific uses of the technology may yield. The Administration wasted no time in drafting a bill which matches these recommendations. "The Cloning Prohibition Act of 1997," announced by the President on June 9, would outlaw the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer with the intent of implanting the resulting embryo in a woman's womb or creating a child in any other fashion. However, the bill leaves open the possibility of private laboratories performing cloning research using human embryos, as long as federal funds are not involved and no child develops.
By focusing on somatic cell nuclear transfer, NBAC made a decision to steer clear of the controversial issue of human embryo research. Under current law, it is illegal to use federal funds to conduct research which involves the creation of a human embryo. The report argues that this is a topic which has already received considerable time and attention from Congress and the Administration. The report also does not address other forms of cloning, such as embryo splitting.
While the NBAC recommendations drew support from the Administration, some members of Congress have been critical of the panel's silence on the embryo research issue. Since the report is very specific in prohibiting the creation of a child through cloning, some have interpreted this to mean that NBAC has tacitly endorsed embryo research, so long as the embryo does not develop as a child. On June 7, shortly after the NBAC report was released, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO) issued a statement saying, "I had hoped that the federal ethics commission would not be afraid to make a strong moral statement that human cloning is wrong, period, and should be banned. But when it came to the tough questions, they punted, and now it will be up to Congress and state legislatures to resolve those issues." Sen. Bond also expressed concern over NBAC's recommendation that federal cloning legislation be subject to review and revision in five years through a "sunset clause." His position is grounded in a belief that human cloning is not morally permissible; now or ever, and that, therefore, there is no need to allow the possibility of revising or rescinding a legislative cloning ban. "They are leaving the door wide open to future cloning," he stated.
Sen. Bond's concerns were raised in the congressional hearings that followed the report's release. At a hearing by the House Science Committee Technology Subcommittee on June 12, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) also addressed the controversial "sunset clause," stating that he would rather enact a law without such a clause that could be reviewed and amended on an as-needed basis. On the Senate side, Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), chair of the Public Health Subcommittee of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, held a hearing on June 17 to examine the theological and ethical issues involved in cloning. Sen. Frist questioned witnesses from various religious and ethical perspectives on cloning and related human embryo research.
In the wake of the report's release, it is clear that many members of Congress have been left unsatisfied. By narrowly focusing on somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning, NBAC was able to review the topic within the time allotted by the President, but the commission was unable to address some of the broader issues of research ethics. As a result, members of NBAC have been repeatedly asked whether the panel has endorsed embryo research involving cloning. The answer given by Dr. Harold Shapiro, chair of NBAC, and by other commissioners, is a resounding "no." NBAC resolved early on that embryo research was beyond the scope of its assignment from the President.
Three bills have been introduced to prohibit research involving cloning a human being: H.R. 922 and H.R. 923, both introduced by Rep. Ehlers, and S. 368, introduced by Sen. Bond.