By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON — On the heels of news last week that scientists had successfully cloned a sheep, President Clinton on Tuesday issued a directive banning the use of federal funds for research into cloning humans.
Calling the cloning advances "a matter of morality and spirituality as well [as science]," the president, flanked by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Harold Varmus, Chair of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) Harold Shapiro, and Science and Technology Advisor Jack Gibbons, announced the new ban and urged that private research facilities comply with a voluntary moratorium on such experimentation until the NBAC Bioethics Advisory Commission weighs in.
"Science often moves faster than our ability to understand its implications," Clinton said. "At the very least, however, we should all agree that we need a better understanding of the scope and implications of this most recent breakthrough."
The specter of cloning humans entered the collective consciousness 10 days ago when Scottish scientists revealed that they had successfully cloned an adult sheep. Previously, scientists had subscribed to the dogma that the DNA of a fully developed animal couldn't be used to create an identical copy of that adult animal.
On Feb. 24, Clinton asked NBAC to review the legal and ethical issues associated with cloning technology with an emphasis on the ethics of cloning human beings. He also requested that the committee render its considerations in 90 days.
Even though the administration banned the use of NIH funds for creating human embryos for research purposes in 1994, and Congress extended that ban with the 1996 and 1997 appropriations bills, the administration said it felt there were loopholes that could allow human cloning experimentation. For example, the restrictions do not explicitly cover human embryos created for implantation and do not cover all federal agencies.
The Clinton directive prevents all federal agencies from supporting, funding or conducting research into cloning humans. Clinton acknowledged that, as a result of a federal embryo research ban, "a great deal of research and activity in this area is supported by private funds." Clinton urged that privately funded researchers voluntarily heed the ban until the NBAC issues its report in late May.
However, the president explicitly stated the benefits of cloning research in animals during his remarks. "The recent breakthrough in animal cloning is one that could yield enormous benefits, enabling us to reproduce the most productive strains of crop and livestock, holding out the promise of revolutionary new medical treatments and cures, helping to unlock the greatest secrets of the genetic code," Clinton said. "But, like splitting the atom, this is a discovery that carries burdens as well as benefits."
Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) President Carl Feldbaum commended the president for "taking the right step."
Feldbaum pointed out that many scientists see cloning humans as a very distant possibility, if at all. "Many scientists have questions about the actual experiments and see this as solely a scientific issue," Feldbaum said.
Feldbaum noted that it is important to take time out and Clinton took care to state that his intention was not to impede legitimate cloning research. "He sent an important message to the scientific community by having Dr. Varmus and Secretary Shalala present," Feldbaum said. "This is an issue that looms large in the public consciousness, and this is not a moment to be cavalier." *