Anatomy of a Decision: Ethics Panel's Wooly Work Devising a Policy on Cloning Represented a Rare Clash of Science, Religion, and Medicine

By Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

Anatomy of a Decision: Ethics Panel's Wooly Work Devising a Policy on Cloning Represented a Rare Clash of Science, Religion, and Medicine


Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The first clue that Alta Charo's world was about to change came on an aluminum-gray day in February. As the University of Wisconsin law professor scanned a copy of the Sunday paper, a sheep named Dolly stared out at her from the front page. The headline proclaimed simply: With Cloning of a Sheep, the Ethical Ground Shifts.

"I knew in an instant that my life had just changed," she recalls.

She wasn't alone. For the next 97 days, Dr. Charo and 17 other members of a federal advisory panel would wrestle with the ethical pros and cons of a technological feat potentially as profound as the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. Out of the ensuing flurry of meetings, debates, e-mail, and FedEx packages would emerge a recommendation that President Clinton this week embraced in proposed legislation: that Congress ban any attempt to produce a child with the cloning techniques used to produce Dolly. How the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) arrived at its decision offers a rare look at the intersection of science, religion, law, and medicine over a technology that offers both tremendous promise and peril. In producing Dolly, biologists in Scotland apparently succeeded where others had failed, giving the world the first mammal cloned from adult cells. In theory, other researchers said, the approach might work with humans as well. Even before Mr. Clinton called on the commission to prepare a policy recommendation dealing with cloning, its wheels were turning - in fits and starts. Charo recalls the White House asking her to appear on "Nightline" the Monday night following the cloning breakthrough's announcement. "I didn't know when I showed up at the studios that the president had announced he was going to bump this issue to NBAC," she says. "I found that out as I was having my make-up put on." With the help of the Nightline crew, Charo got the unlisted phone number of the chair of the commission, Princeton University president Harold Shapiro, and called him to ask if there were any marching orders. "I'm on a cell phone with him as I'm sitting in front of the cameras, and Chris Wallace is beginning to talk," she says. "It was really kind of insane." By the end of that week, however, Dr. Shapiro had convened a handful of NBAC members to help chart the committee's course over the 90 days the White House had given the panel to do its work. Though the commission was set up on paper in 1995 to deal with a range of bioethical issues, its first full meeting didn't occur until last fall. Now, lacking staff and still facing budget uncertainties, it was being asked to tackle one of the thorniest bioethical issues imaginable - in a fraction of the time most presidential commissions are given. All hands on deck For panelists who had never served on a national commission, Shapiro's initial meeting was a jump-in-with-both-feet experience. "For me it was a total mystery," says Carol Greider, a respected molecular biologist with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, N. …

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Anatomy of a Decision: Ethics Panel's Wooly Work Devising a Policy on Cloning Represented a Rare Clash of Science, Religion, and Medicine
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