TOPICS > Science

Cloning Debate

July 31, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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SUSAN DENTZER: After Scottish researchers produced the first cloned animal, a sheep named Dolly, in 1997, the U.S. Government outlawed the use of federal dollars in human cloning research. But today the House of Representatives weighed enactment of an outright federal ban that would criminalize all human cloning activities carried out within the United States.

REP. F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: This vote is about providing moral leadership for a watching world. We have the largest and most powerful research community on the face of the earth, and we devote more money to research and development than any other nation in the world. Although many other nations have already taken steps to ban human cloning, the world is waiting for the United States to set the moral tone against this experimentation.

SUSAN DENTZER: But as other lawmakers told it, today’s house debate pitted scientific advancement against abstract fears of an ethical slippery slope. Republican Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania backs a different approach.

REP. JIM GREENWOOD: The Greenwood-Deutsch substitute, just like the base bill, makes it illegal to create a human being through cloning. We all– Dr. Weldon and I and all of the speakers you’ll hear from today– all believe that it is not safe and it is not ethical to create a new human being through cloning. We need to ban that. What we don’t want to ban is, as has been said, the somatic cell nuclear transfer research, because that, my colleagues, that is what gives us the most promising opportunity to cure the diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries.

SUSAN DENTZER: The latest efforts to ban human cloning come after revelations earlier this year that various groups inside and outside the U.S. are seeking to produce cloned human babies. One involves a member of a Canadian cult known as the Raelians, who formed a company called Clonaid. Physician Brigitte Boisselier told a House hearing in March that her group wanted to create cloned babies to help infertile couples have children.

DR. BRIGITTE BOISSELIER: I would like to remind you that when we talk about the first human clone, we are talking about a baby, a very healthy one, and that’s what we want. That’s what we will produce.

SPOKESMAN: The House is not in order.

SUSAN DENTZER: Today’s cloning debate also comes at a particularly tense time. That’s because from the science to the ethics it has much in common with another current controversy: The one over human embryonic stem cell research. Peter Deutsch is a Florida Democrat.

REP. PETER DEUTSCH: This issue is intertwined with stem cell research and members need to understand that’s what we’re voting on. 15 million people with cancer; six million people with Alzheimer’s; one million people with Parkinson’s– those are obviously large numbers. But I ask each of my colleagues to think of one person– maybe it was a grandmother or a grandfather, a father, a mother, a friend– who had one of these diseases. And what we would be doing today, if we passed the Weldon bill, would be taking away their hope of stopping their pain and their suffering. I mean, that’s the choice in front of us. That truly is the choice in front of us.

SUSAN DENTZER: In effect, there are two different types of cloning, or as it’s called by scientists, somatic cell nuclear transfer. One form is reproductive cloning, which is aimed at producing a baby. The other form, known as therapeutic cloning, is aimed at producing genetically identical molecules, cells or tissues for use in treatment of disease. Both would create human embryos, but for radically different reasons.

SUSAN DENTZER: Today Florida Republican Dave Weldon, key sponsor of the main anti-cloning bill under consideration, underscored that his approach would ban both reproductive and therapeutic cloning.

REP. DAVID WELDON: What cannot continue is what people want to start doing now, and it’s not being done, but they want to start doing it, and that is to create cloned human embryos for this purpose of research. Now there are people putting forward this notion that if we were able to go ahead with this, all these huge breakthroughs would occur. I just want to reiterate I’m a doctor. I just saw patients a week ago. I’ve treated all these diseases. I’ve reviewed the medical literature. It is really pie-in-the-sky to say that there’s going to be all these huge breakthroughs.

SUSAN DENTZER: Greenwood’s bill, by contrast, would ban reproductive cloning, but allow therapeutic cloning to proceed.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: Why should we prohibit the research to lead to these kinds of cures? Only because of the belief that a blastocyst, a clump of cells, not yet even an embryo, with no nerves, no feelings, no brain and no heart is entitled to the same rights and protections as a human being.

SUSAN DENTZER: But in fact lawmakers on both sides clashed over just how much scientific research could proceed under their respective bills.

REP. F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER: This bill does not prevent research on embryonic stem cells. What it does do is it prevents research on cloned embryonic stem cells. There’s a big difference.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF: We need the research. We’re losing scientists who are going overseas to conduct this research. The base bill even precludes us from benefiting from the research done in other countries. This cannot be allowed to go on. This is important to all of our future. We must preserve this vital science research.

SUSAN DENTZER: Late this afternoon, lawmakers voted to reject the Greenwood bill, which would have allowed therapeutic cloning to proceed. A vote on the Weldon measure banning both forms of cloning is expected later this evening.