Tough Task: Advancing the Debate over Cloning Embryos ; President's Bioethics Advisers Weigh in, Proposing Four-Year Moratorium to Review Direction of Research, Societal Concerns

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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 taking us."

"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. …