Americans almost unanimously turn thumbs down on the cloning of
human babies. But when it comes to cloning human embryos for use in
biomedical research, they are sharply and emotionally divided.
While some oppose cloning as the irreversible crossing of a moral
boundary, others back it as scientific freedom essential to pave the
way to life-saving therapies.
Now President Bush's handpicked council of bioethics advisers has
jumped into the fray. While the council, too, was sharply split,
last week it proposed a compromise: a four-year moratorium on
cloning embryos for research. The purpose would be to allow a
national debate on the direction of research and how much society
should exercise control over it. And it called for a federal review
of other reproductive technologies with potential for making genetic
changes in children.
Pleasing neither those who want a total cloning ban (Mr. Bush
included) nor those who see a moratorium as stopping progress, the
panel seemed intent on setting the stage for greater oversight of
the biomedical community. As Leon Kass, the bioethicist who chairs
the council, once testified: "We have a golden opportunity to
exercise deliberate human command over where biotechnology may be
"The most important part of this report is the call for
regulation - even those who want to go ahead with research agree
there has to be regulation," says George Annas, an expert on health
law at Boston University. "We certainly haven't had a national
debate about how to regulate" the use of these technologies.
While the US leads the world in biomedical research, other
countries are ahead in taking a more comprehensive, societal look at
the implications of new technologies and in setting public policy.
"Canada had a lively national debate on all these issues of
assisted reproductive technologies, which was carried out by a
commission with public consultation and focus groups," says Lori
Knowles, associate for law at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think
tank in Garrison, N.Y. "The same happened in the United Kingdom."
She and her colleagues have just completed a two-year
international project comparing regulatory approaches in this field.
"This hasn't been done in the US partly because of the abortion
issue, but also because of the antigovernment, antiregulation
[environment] that is part of the American scene," she says.
But with two fertility doctors claiming they are in the process
of cloning babies, and with heightened concern over bioterrorism and
other misuses of research, people are beginning to acknowledge a
need for oversight of private as well as publicly funded research. …