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Senate Committee Examines Human Cloning

On March 5, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the dangers of cloning and the promise of regenerative medicine. Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA) opened the hearing by remarking that we must “do everything we can to encourage this extraordinary medical progress, that brings such great hope to so many.” He added that human cloning should not be confused with regenerative medicine because “one creates a person, and should be banned. The other provides a cure, and deserves our strong support.”

Ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-NH) described reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning as wrong because both techniques seek to “engineer humans.” He asked why the United States would want to support “human engineering,” if we fought a war to prevent the formation of an “Aryan race.”

Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) said he is a strong advocate of embryonic stem cell research but stressed that such a contentious issue could not be “divorced” from the moral and ethical issues it raises. He also noted that scientists should “proceed cautiously and carefully” in their research and that the differences between stem cell research and cloning must be further highlighted.

Testifying before the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) explained that there are two types of cloning–reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. Reproductive cloning involves the development of a full individual from a single body cell, as seen with the creation of Dolly the sheep. On the other hand, therapeutic cloning creates embryonic stem cells that are genetic matches to the patient for the purpose of repairing damaged and diseased tissue.

Sen. Specter noted his bill (S. 1893) would ban human reproductive cloning and added that “before we close off the opportunity to save lives, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to look beyond the word cloning and engage in substantive debate regarding regenerative therapies that would revolutionize the practice of medicine.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) also testified, advocating for a total ban on human cloning. She compared cloning to “an unmarked and unchecked interstate system, with scientists racing as fast as they can with no restrictions whatsoever.” Sen. Landrieu also expressed her concern that women would be relied upon as commodities and should be protected from such exploitation.

Recently, Sens. Landrieu and Sam Brownback (R-KS) introduced a bill (S.1899) that would ban all forms of human cloning. Last year, the House passed similar legislation (H.R. 2505), but the Senate has not considered the bill.

The hearing’s most powerful testimony came from actor Christopher Reeve. Mr. Reeve, a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, said that he cannot “accept living with a severe disability” because for the past seven years, he has not been able to eat, wash, use the restroom, or get dressed on his own. As a result of his circumstances, he has a “keen interest in research.” Mr. Reeve also pressed the Senate to pass Sen. Kennedy’s bill (S. 1758), saying, “if we act now, we still have a chance to catch up” and not lose our “preeminence in science and medicine.” S. 1758 would prohibit reproductive cloning but aims to preserve other areas of medical research.

Speaking in support of a ban on reproductive cloning only, Dr. Paul Berg of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine said, “there are unacceptable risks to the mother and any fetus that would result from the procedure.” He continued that a full ban on cloning would “deprive American patients access to potential therapies for some of the most debilitating diseases.”

Thomas Murray of the Hastings Center explained that steps could be taken now to “control destructive uses of technology.” He added, “We can insist that all research, whether publicly or privately funded, must be conducted according to the most stringent ethical standards.”

Judy Norsigian of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective said that she supported embryonic stem cell research but felt that a moratorium on all human embryo cloning is necessary. She spoke in support of obtaining stem cells from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics that would otherwise be destroyed, but objected to stem cells derived from cloned embryos.

According to Ms. Norsigian, experiments with human embryo cloning would “inevitably lead to unacceptable human germline genetic manipulation” and pose a threat to many basic human rights. Ms. Norsigian also expressed her concern that there is a lack of “adequate,” long-term, safety data on the “super-ovulating drugs” that women must take in order to provide the eggs for embryo cloning. She said that a moratorium would not “halt progress in key areas.” Rather, it would allow for “important legal and ethical implications of embryo cloning to be addressed.”

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