For more than two months, the American political consciousness has been consumed by the terror attacks of 11 September and the government's response. Now a much more divisive issue has resurfaced after a U.S. biomedical research company said it has successfully used cloning to create a human embryo.
Washington, 27 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of human cloning is back before the American public with the announcement by a laboratory in the U.S. that it has for the first time used the procedure to create a human embryo.
The company -- Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts -- says it has no intention of using the research to create a human being, but is looking for a way to combine human eggs with other human cells to develop what are known as therapeutic "stem cells."
Stem cells in human embryos can develop into virtually all human organs. In theory, stem cells could grow into virtually any cell type and serve as replacement tissue in treating diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and diabetes.
The importance of cloning is that a patient's DNA is inserted into the human egg. This means that whatever stem cells are harvested from the resulting embryo will be an exact genetic match with the patient. This would greatly reduce the possibility that the patient's body would reject the newly implanted tissue -- and therefore greatly reduce the patient's need for costly antirejection medications that sometimes have no effect.
Despite the potential medical benefits, many Americans view the use of stem cells with distaste. These opponents note that a human embryo -- which they regard as a human life -- would be destroyed after it is used to help treat another person's disease.
Research into the use of stem cells has been conducted for years, some of it with the financial help of the U.S government. Such research was supported by U.S. President Bill Clinton, who served from 1993 until early this year. The current president, George W. Bush, said during his campaign that he would oppose government funding of stem-cell research if he was elected president.
In August -- seven months into his presidency -- Bush announced a compromise decision on what he called a "complex and difficult issue." He said he would permit government funding of research on stem cells that already had been harvested from embryos.
But he said he would not allow government money to be spent on research using stem cells that have yet to be harvested. The cells could be taken from about 100,000 frozen embryos that are now being stored at laboratories around the country. At that time, Bush framed his decision in moral terms: "I strongly oppose human cloning, as do most Americans. We recoil at the idea of growing human beings for spare body parts or creating life for our convenience."
Yesterday, commenting at the White House on the research being conducted by Advanced Cell Technology, the president made much the same argument.
"The use of embryos to clone is wrong. We should not as a society grow life to destroy it. That's exactly what's taking place. And I made that position very clear. I haven't changed my mind. And this evidence today that they're trying to achieve that objective to grow an embryo in order to extract a stem cell in order for that embryo to die is bad public policy. Not only that, it's morally wrong in my opinion."
Like abortion, human cloning has become a major political issue in the United States. Several states have banned human cloning. Even the U.S. Congress has tried to legislate restrictions. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed legislation outlawing human cloning, and the Senate is considering a similar ban.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday that Bush hopes the announcement by Advanced Cell Technology will be an incentive for the Senate to pass a bill similar enough to the one approved by the House. Then, he said, the two measures could be reconciled into a single piece of legislation that the president could sign into law.
But it is unclear how the Senate will approach the issue. The majority leader, Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), says he opposes cloning for the purpose of replicating a human being, but he supports its use in medical research.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the influential chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made clear his utter distaste for the procedure, regardless of what it is used for: "It goes over the line in dealing with the natural order of things if it is being done simply to perpetuate another human being."
Another influential senator, John Shelby (R-Alabama), indicated that there may be room for compromise: "I think what we have to do is think about: Where does this lead us?" But Shelby also made it clear that he believes the Senate must act carefully. A couple of us are very interested in biomedical research. We benefit from it. But this is a slippery slope. We'd better be careful."
But no matter what the Senate does, American law has no jurisdiction outside the United States. Any research laboratory anywhere else in the world is now free to use the same methods developed by Advanced Cell Technologies to conduct the same research and -- depending on its local laws -- even to clone a human being.