There were two debates in the first half of the first session of the 105th Congress that might seem as much the purview of bioethicists as politicians -- what to do about the newfound ability to clone adult animals, and what to do about a particular type of abortion procedure. But while the debate over the former was primarily about ethics, in the abortion debate the word was barely heard.
First, cloning. In February, researchers from the Roslin Institute in Scotland reported that they had taken genetic material from the mammary gland of a ewe, implanted it in an embryo, put the embryo into another sheep, and produced a healthy lamb. While scientists have been able to clone embryos, this was the first report that an adult animal was clonable ... and the first indication that it could be done in humans.
Almost immediately six senators sponsored a bill to ban federal funding for human cloning; a similar bill appeared in the House, along with another that would have completely banned human cloning. (With the initial furor over, and the TV lights gone, those bills are languishing -- none are scheduled for a vote.) Meanwhile President Clinton blocked federal funds for human cloning, and after his National Bioethics Advisory Commission concluded that human cloning is morally unacceptable sent Congress legislation that would prohibit it.
Within a few weeks of his initial announcement, Wilmut was an invited speaker at a Senate hearing on the ethics and science of cloning. The legislators wanted to know if banning cloning research would block other promising areas of research, if the sheep feat could be done in humans, and if it was ethical. They asked Wilmut, other scientists, law professors, biotech executives -- and three ethicists. Wilmut said he for one was not interested in human cloning; he and others said years more research would be needed anyway. Some scientists -- and lawmakers -- worried that a ban could stop research that might otherwise lead to treatments for diseases. Former transplant surgeon and current Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) pointed out that there had been public objections to heart and lung transplants; Senator Tom Harkin went further, comparing people trying to block cloning to the people who tried to block Galileo.
The senators asked everyone they heard from at the hearing if cloning humans is ethical. The answers ranged from maybe it's ok to it's definitely not to it's going to happen anyway so maybe we should set up some rules. Most media accounts, after a brief description of the science, focused on ethics as well.
Meanwhile, Congress was grappling with a technology that's not just theoretical -- an abortion procedure in which a fetus is partly extracted from the womb, its skull contents suctioned out, and the body is removed. …