The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday heard from scientists, lawyers and fellow lawmakers who opposed human cloning but disagreed on whether those techniques should be allowed to produce stem cells for research purposes.
Biologist Irving L. Weissman, chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied scientific and medical aspects of human cloning, testified that while human cloning should be banned, “there are no scientific or medical reasons” to support a total ban and “such a ban would certainly close avenues of promising scientic research.”
The Senate is expected to debate a House-passed bill this spring that would ban all human cloning whether it be intended to produce the first cloned human infant or to produce stem cells for research. The former commonly is called reproductive cloning and the latter commonly is called therapeutic cloning.
Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, introduced an identical bill in the Senate and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, announced yesterday that she would co-sponsor it.
“Anything short of a complete ban creates a loophole that would allow researchers the power to decide this issue for the American people,” she said in a statement.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of yesterday’s hearing, opposed Mr. Brownback’s bill and the House-passed bill, and introduced competing legislation that would ban human reproductive cloning while allowing so-called therapeutic cloning to continue.
“Many doctors and scientists have argued that we must protect our ability to use cloning techniques to try to save and improve the lives of those ravaged by disease and other ailments,” Mrs. Feinstein said yesterday. “I believe strongly that it would be a disaster to ban this kind of valuable research.”
The human-cloning technique in question, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, consists of removing the nucleus from a donated egg and inserting in its place the nucleus of a body cell, such as a cell from a cheek.
In reproductive cloning, the early-stage embryo that results from the nuclear transfer is nurtured to the point that it can be implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother to produce an infant. A majority in Congress and the science community, including Mr. Weissman’s panel, agree this should be outlawed.
However, in therapeutic cloning the development of the resulting primitive embryo or “blastocyst” is halted as soon as a cluster of stem cells develops. The stem cells then are harvested for research purposes.
Proponents of therapeutic cloning say it could be the key to treating a host of diseases and medical problems. Unlike other treatments, they argue, therapeutic cloning potentially could be used to produce tissue or organs that exactly match the person into whom they are implanted, virtually eliminating the danger that the person’s body would reject them.
“This work should be allowed to move forward,” testified Kris Gulden, a representative of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. Miss Gulden was confined to a wheelchair after an accident left her paralyzed.
Meanwhile, proponents of a total ban say both types of human cloning produce human embryos and it is morally repugnant to create human life solely to destroy it for stem cells.
They also told the panel that the promise of therapeutic cloning has been falsely exaggerated.