By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON — Chicago physicist Richard Seed's announcement that he intends to clone a human being sparked a media frenzy that Washington couldn't ignore.
While noting the "extraordinary promise of science and technology," President Clinton devoted his entire weekly radio address to a call for legislative action on his bill banning human cloning. The bill was delivered to Congress in June immediately after the National Bioethics Advisory Commission issued its report on human cloning. As yet, no one has sponsored the bill in either chamber of Congress.
"Still, it's good to remember that scientific advancement does not occur in a moral vacuum," Clinton said. "Personally, I believe that human cloning raises deep concerns, given our cherished concepts of faith and humanity. Beyond that, however, we know there is virtually unanimous consensus in the scientific and medical communities that attempting to use these cloning techniques to actually clone a human being is untested and unsafe and morally unacceptable."
Clinton went on to chastise Congress for failing to act on his legislation before a rogue scientist could begin to plan human cloning endeavors and challenged the legislators to make it illegal to clone a human being.
"It's now clearer than ever the legislation is exactly what is needed," Clinton said. "The vast majority of scientists and physicians in the private sector have refrained from using these techniques improperly and have risen up to condemn any plans to do so. But we know it is possible for some to ignore the consensus of their colleagues and proceed without regard for our common values."
Whatever Seed's abilities to successfully clone a human being, it is quite clear that he has succeeded in bringing the issue of cloning to the forefront of the political agenda once again.
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) both introduced legislation last year to ban cloning and the federal funding of cloning. Christopher Barbee, Ehlers' press secretary, told BioWorld Today that passing the cloning legislation will be at the top of Ehlers' agenda when Congress reconvenes on Jan. 27.
Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), noted that Seed's announcement is likely to result in a spate of legislation at both the federal and state level.
"From what we have seen so far, the new legislation will likely be imprecise," Feldbaum said. "The new legislation will be coming fast and furiously. Each of the bills so far has some problems."
The president's legislation is the best of the current crop in Feldbaum's estimation. Still, that bill, as yet unsponsored, has several problems. First, the violations of the law turn on the intent of the individual conducting the cloning research.
"This just gives undue discretion to the prosecutor," Feldbaum noted. "It also makes the issue more of a psychological one."
Secondly, the president's bill doesn't preempt state legislation, which means there could be 51 different laws banning cloning across the country.
Propsed Legislation Could Stunt Basic Research
Ehlers has proposed two bills, one that bans cloning and one that bans federal funding of cloning. Neither defines scientific terms, leaving them open to an interpretation that could ban the cloning of all genes and cells, making basic scientific research impossible.
Neither Bond's nor Ehlers' proposed bill preempts state legislation, names sunset dates to allow for periodic reassessment, or describes research protected from the ban — such as cloning of genes, cells and small molecules.
The Bond effort not only has the same problems as the Ehlers bills, Feldbaum noted, but even bans research into cloning. Indeed, such basic research is the focus of the Bond bill.
"This is enormous imprecision in legislative language," Feldbaum said.
Feldbaum noted that BIO doesn't reject the prospect of a legislative ban on cloning a human being. Neither does the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). However, Jeff Trewhitt, media spokesman for PhRMA, said, "We have to be sure that we have a law that doesn't ban legitimate research in the process."
Feldbaum noted that BIO supports a ban that forbids the cloning of a human child, preempts legislation by the states and carries a sunset provision. In addition, Feldbaum said, the law should include severe civil penalties, along with a findings section that describes the value of medical research and specifies areas of research excluded from the ban.
"Until we are asked to draft our own language, we will work with everyone to develop bills that won't ban important research," Feldbaum said. "The one thing that I have learned from all this is that given the right academic credentials and saying anything about bioethics, you can cause a stir in Washington." *