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Senate Subcommittee Examines Human Cloning

On December 4, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education held a hearing to discuss human cloning. Subcommittee Chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) opened the hearing, noting the recent announcement by a biotechnology firm, Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. (ACT), that it had successfully cloned a human embryo: “This announcement has led to an avalanche of misinformation about what this advance means and whether or not it will lead to human cloning.” He added, “I think it is time to spend more time on the facts and less on the fiction,” continuing, “One thing has become clear about this debate, as long as the opponents of stem cell research can wave the flag of human cloning, science will be inhibited.”

Ranking Member Arlen Specter (R-PA) agreed, “There is no doubt about the abhorrence of reproductive cloning to make another human being, but that is not what we are talking about here.”

The subcommittee heard from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), sponsor of a bill (S. 790) that would prohibit all forms of human cloning. His bill is similar to a bill (H.R. 2505) that passed the House earlier this year (see The Source, 8/3/01, p. 1). In noting his opposition to human cloning, Sen. Brownback said, “It is an issue of vast historical significance….Is a cloned human a who or a what? Is it a person or a thing?” He urged the subcommittee to “pause at this time” and “hold a series of hearings over several months” to examine the issue. In the meantime, he called for a six-month moratorium on human cloning. “The President has asked us to pass H.R. 2505….We could add a six-month sunset clause.”

The day before the hearing, the Senate rejected, 1-94, an attempt by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) to impose a six-month moratorium on human cloning. Sen. Lott had offered the amendment to the railroad retirement bill (H.R. 10).

Dr. Bert Vogelstein of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine also testified before the subcommittee to “clarify some of the confusion surrounding two very different medical endeavors; the first is regenerative medicine, and the second is cloning of a human being.” Dr. Vogelstein continued, “Regenerative medicine…involves growing cells and tissues for implantation in people with diseases or injuries to their organs.” Stating that the biggest obstacle to the success of transplanting cells is the body’s immune reaction to foreign cells, Dr. Vogelstein said that “nuclear transplantation,” or the process by which the DNA from the cell of a patient would be inserted into an egg cell, would create cells that are “genetically identical to the patient’s cells, and would in theory not be rejected by the patient’s immune system.” He emphasized that this procedure “should not be confused with human cloning, which has the goal of creating a human being.”

Ronald Green of Dartmouth College and the Ethics Advisory Board of ACT agreed with the distinction between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. “Some will object, however, that there is a slippery slope here, that therapeutic cloning will lead inevitably to reproductive cloning and the birth of a human clone,” he said, arguing, “Open and publicly discussed research like this may actually reduce the chances that unscrupulous researchers will pursue reproductive cloning.” He further stated that “adding therapeutic cloning to the prohibition will add little force to it and will additionally result in the loss of the medical benefits that therapeutic research can bring.”

Michael West of ACT also agreed, saying, “Nuclear transfer offers an important solution to the problem of tissue rejection….Therapeutic cloning does not involve the cloning of a human being, it involves the medical use of cloning to make living cells.”

He added, “History will judge us harshly if we as a society fail to recognize and deliberate carefully upon a medical technology that could so powerfully alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings.”

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