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