Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - Legislation addressing reproductive and therapeutic cloning took a back seat last fall to the likes of homeland security, tax cuts and the Republican take-over of Washington.

But leave it to a company connected with a religious cult boasting of birthing clones to force Washington to take up the issue again.

Two days into the 108th Congress, Reps. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) introduced the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, legislation that criminalizes both reproductive and therapeutic - or research - cloning. The same legislation, authored by Weldon, passed in a House vote of 265-162 in August 2001. (Any legislation that failed to receive President Bush's signature by the end of 2002 has died.)

When the research firm Clonaid, founded by Claude Vorihon, who calls himself Rael and believes life was created in a lab by extraterrestrials, said a human clone named Eve was born Dec. 26, politicians, scientists and religious leaders scrambled to publicly denounce the claims. (Clonaid said a second clone was reportedly born to a lesbian couple Jan. 3.)

Among the critics, Weldon released a statement saying, "This claim makes it even more imperative that passing a full human cloning ban should be a high priority for both the House and the Senate in the 108th Congress."

Weldon, a practicing internist, said regardless of whether the Raelians (Rael's followers) actually cloned a baby, it is certain that some groups or individuals are rushing to perform human cloning, both for research and reproductive purposes.

"Indeed, research cloning will simply make it easier for those like the Raelians to create cloned babies, since the procedure is the same," Weldon's statement said.

While a majority of the House voted on the side of Weldon, such sweeping legislation had a more difficult time in the divided Senate.

Sen. Sam Brownback, (R-Kan.) introduced legislation calling for a ban on all cloning, while Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sided with mainstream science and introduced a bill that would allow therapeutic cloning, but ban human cloning. (Both pieces of legislation would now have to be reintroduced.)