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Senator Sam Brownback on the Cloning Debate

May 1, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SUSAN DENTZER: Senator, thanks very much for joining us. Why is it important, in your view, to ban human cloning?

SAM BROWNBACK: I think it’s important for us to speak on the topic, and it’s important for several reasons. Number one is just what’s the legal status of the clone? Is the clone a piece of property, or is it a person? And I think we clearly need to speak out on what that topic is. If it’s a person, you can’t patent the clone. If it’s a piece of property, it’s patentable. This will go to the long-term implications of investors looking to invest in this technology.

The second issue is for women’s health. If we’re not going to speak on this subject, then the issue of cloning will continue. It’s legal to do in the United States today. You have to harvest a lot of eggs from women to be able to move forward with this on an aggressive fashion that has health issues for women – super ovulating, the collecting of eggs. Some have said this is going to require up to millions of eggs because you don’t get a clone for every egg. It took over 300 tries to get Dolly the sheep.

Say you got it down to 100. You’re still going to need 100 eggs from women for a single clone. Should women be allowed to be paid for these eggs? What are the health consequences?

And then the third issue is one that the environmental community raises, and it’s a deep, ethical — all of these are deep, ethical issues. It is a particularly deep ethical issue about– are we going to commodify the human species? Are we going to allow you to patent portions of being a human? Are we going to have you collecting women’s eggs for pay for a commodity base price? Are we going to commodify humans? And I think that’s something we really should take up, and all of these are factors as to why we should deal with this now. Before the science and technology move on forward, I think the public should speak.

SUSAN DENTZER: Why is it important, in your view, to ban not just the nuclear transplantation, in effect, the somatic cell nuclear transfer and ban research on that, as well as banning what many people are saying is the primary thing that should be banned — the transfer of the product created from that process into the uterus of a woman for the purposes of creating a baby?

SAM BROWNBACK: Sure. The only thing we’re banning is the process that Dolly the sheep was created, that there not be a Dolly the person created in that same cloning technology. That’s the only thing we’re banning. We’re saying that you can create Dolly the lamb, you can create Copy the cat, but you can’t create Dolly the person.

Some people will say “well, okay, when is it a person? Is it a person when you’ve implanted this into the woman’s uterus? Is it a person when you’ve created the embryo? Is it not a person until a live birth?” And what we’re saying is you can quarrel about all of those. We just want to ban this procedure from creating a Dolly the person, and we should do it at the earliest stage, and so that there’s no question about is this a person yet or not. By everybody’s definition this would be the earliest stage that this is a person.

Now, others are taking the tact that it depends on location. If it’s in a woman’s uterus, it’s a person. If it’s not, it’s not. And that doesn’t seem to me to be a satisfying definition that location would determine whether it’s a person or not. Plus you’ve got to remember where we are in this technology. I mean, to me, we’re with the biotechnology the same stage they were when they cracked the atom open under the Chicago football field.

We’ve discovered a beautiful, powerful, useful, and potentially very dangerous science. These are things that can be very profitable and valuable, in biotechnology and understanding. But there’s also things that you could get into that you’re looking at and you think, we should just pause for a period of time and really think about what we’re doing, and really consider this in-depth as humanity, because you could at the end of the day alter humanity.

You could say we’re going to take genetic material from outside humans, put it in humans where it could be passed to future generations and alter humanity. But should we do that? Are we ready for that decision? This is really time for us to pause and really think about that.

SUSAN DENTZER: But you’re talking about more than a pause here because your bill has in it criminal penalties as well as civil penalties, a jail term of up to ten years, fines of up to $10 million. That’s more than a pause.

SAM BROWNBACK: As does the other bill. The Kennedy bill has all those same provisions, all those same penalties to it.

SUSAN DENTZER: For the reproductive cloning.

SAM BROWNBACK: For the implantation. You can criticize my penalties, you can criticize theirs, it’s the same set of penalties. They would just say if you implant, you get the penalties. We’d say if you would create. Plus, let me ask you this question: if you did create and then implanted, you’re subject to the actual fines, but isn’t this clone going to be brought to a live birth? Who’s going to force this clone to be aborted, if that’s the case?

So nobody is going to require that this clone would then be aborted, so you’re going to have a live birth, a human clone in that case, whether the penalty is issued or not.

SUSAN DENTZER: Senator Spector and Senator Feinstein and others argue that the reproductive clones should, in fact, be banned, and as you said, they have the penalties in their bill as well to try to enforce that. But they’re drawing this line between that and the creation of cells and tissues through nuclear transfer and nuclear transplantation. Is that a meaningful distinction to draw?

SAM BROWNBACK: As I said earlier, it’s based upon location rather than anything else. They would say if you implant it, it’s illegal, but if you create it, it’s not. So you’ve gone ahead and done this, and the illegal act is the implantation, so that the clone is legal in one spot and illegal in the other spot. That’s an infrequent distinction that we would make in the law that you would make a fine based upon location. It’s legal in the test tube, it’s not legal in a woman.

Is that an appropriate place to draw the line? And I don’t think it is, for us to look at it. And again, ours is about banning this one procedure.

SUSAN DENTZER: They appear also, though, to be arguing that the objective is very different, and the objective is important. Their objective is to have medical therapies available for millions of people who are suffering as opposed to creating babies, and they say that’s an important objective. How do you feel about that objective?

SAM BROWNBACK: Well, I don’t question their objective, but we have a way that we can go to find these therapies that we’re already getting them. It would be delightful to me to see a lot more focus on adult stem cells.

You know, within the last three weeks they’ve come out with human clinical trials of the use of adult stem cells. These are in your body, these are in my body — we have them in our fat tissue, we have them in our blood stream, we have them in our bone marrow — that are slowing Parkinson’s, slowing the onset of Multiple Sclerosis, repairing damaged heart tissue, making corneas again for people that can’t see because a cornea isn’t working, out of adult stem cells.

Now, why should we invest millions or billions of dollars in highly speculative technology and cloning, and virtually everybody will agree with that, that this is highly speculative.

Now, I think what we’re trying to do is much more about getting cures than what they’re trying to do. We’re seeing it in human clinical trials, and there’s a number of companies — biotechnology companies — saying cloning will not work, and they’re not investing in going this way. So why would we put the money there in an area that’s not likely to yield results?

SUSAN DENTZER: Well, the opponents on the other side would respond, and do respond to that by saying all of these technologies are preliminary at this point. All of them are speculative. Adult stem cells may, in fact, hold great promise, but so may cloning, and we just don’t know yet. And what they say is that Congress is setting itself up here as the science czar, making determinations that science isn’t prepared to make at this point.

SAM BROWNBACK: Do we experiment on eagle eggs, on eggs from eagles? Do we experiment on mountain gorillas from Africa? Those are limitations we put because these are endangered species, and we say that we shouldn’t be researching on those. So the notion that science is putting limitations — or Congress is putting limitations on science as . . . . is something that happens with a great deal of frequency.

Do we let everybody experiment with nuclear material? Do we even let everybody study about nuclear material? No. We put limits on those sort of technologies all the time, appropriately so. Should we put limits on experimenting on humans? Doesn’t that seem to be a reasonable thing? We do it now. We don’t allow people to research on inmates on death row. That’s limiting science. It’s almost ghoulish to think that we would even consider something like that, isn’t it? And yet we would consider researching on the youngest and most vulnerable of the human species.

SUSAN DENTZER: Back to the penalties in your bill, the opponents say that in addition to being wrong-headed, as they say, the penalties would be unenforceable. If people were to go overseas for treatments derived from cloning, they would have to come back, and as Dr. West said to us, you’d have to check your pancreas at the border if it was cells that were created through cloning derived technology. Is it, in fact, practical to think about enforcing this in a global, biomedical enterprise?

SAM BROWNBACK: Under their bill, you would check your womb, I guess, at the border then, if that’s the argument. And indeed, this needs to have a global treaty associated with it.

May I point out one other thing. About 10 years ago we had a large debate about fetal tissue research. I don’t know if you recall this, or the viewers did, that this was going to solve a number of our health problems, if we could just research on the young human, we’ll be able to find cures to a lot of these maladies that I want to find cures to, that we all do. And yet after 10 years of legality and federal funding, we’ve not found these. A year ago it was embryonic stem cell research. If we’d just get the federal funding, which is legal to do, and was legal to do, we’ll be able to find all of these cures. We’ll cure all these diseases.

SUSAN DENTZER: You have at present 31 co-sponsors of your bill, and obviously we need to pick up 20 more votes. It doesn’t look good from – at least from the counts that the other side is making. You may have a different opinion. How does it look in terms of passage of your bill?

SAM BROWNBACK: I think it looks divided for both sides. Those of the pro-cloning forces, I think it looks tough for them to get the vote, so I think it’s difficult for us. But there are a number of people still undecided, and that’s why you have votes, so that you force people to go ahead and decide how it is that they will come down on this.

The House has passed this with a bipartisan strong majority, a 100-vote margin in the House to ban all forms of human cloning. The president has called for a ban on human cloning of all types. It is the Senate that remains in the way of us taking this issue, and if you say it’s an item that we should or shouldn’t take up, I think it’s an item that we need to speak clearly on, and then we need to pursue an international agreement on it. And the United States’ voice on this is an important one that needs to be heard. The U.S. Senate needs to act on it.

SUSAN DENTZER: If you lose this vote, what would your next step be?

SAM BROWNBACK: We’ll try to continue to bring it up in other forms and other ways. I think it’s an important issue for us, as a society, to decide, and the Senate can block it. The Senate could go ahead and take it up and move it forward.

I think it will be important as well to be considered in international treaties. So I think it will be pursued by a number of people in international agreements as well.

SUSAN DENTZER: Great. Thank you, Senator.