Cloning Comes to Capitol Hill

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SHAWN THEW/AFP

Weldon talks to reporters after the ban on human cloning passed the House

This week members of the U.S. House of Representatives were confronted with two choices: Ban all cloning of human cells, or permit limited "therapeutic" cloning to provide scientists with cells required for potentially life-saving research.

The House went for the first option.

The ripple effects of the vote, of course, reach well beyond the largely theoretical realm of cloning, and into the heated debate over the Hill’s current cause celebre: Embryonic stem cell research.

What the vote means

Both the prevailing bill, sponsored by Florida Republican Dave Weldon, and the unsuccessful version, backed by Jim Greenwood, Republican of Pennsylvania, would ban human cloning. It’s the question of embryonic cloning that divides the two. Weldon’s bill puts an absolute stop to the creation of embryos, and makes it unlawful to ship or receive for any purpose any embryo produced by human cloning. Greenwood’s version provides the possibility of cloning embryos for research purposes.

Cloning is now bound for the Senate, where everyone expects continued heated debate. And while a final compromise bill will probably not look exactly like Weldon’s, it’s quite possible the spirit of his restrictions will remain. What would that mean for stem cell research?

Slowed biomedical development: The truth of the matter is scientists can’t push ahead with promising research without the benefit of specific cells. If Congress legislates against creating or using those cells, science comes to a screeching halt.

A listless international marketplace for new cures and treatments: Any ban on cloning embryonic cells will reach beyond American borders; patients in the U.S. will be unable to access treatments developed overseas using cloned embryonic stem cells. That side effect, some predict, could be the true death knell for continued studies. If the U.S. market is off limits there’s a lot less incentive for biomedical research abroad — and considerably less hope for patients here at home.

By approving the wide-reaching ban on human cell cloning rather than the less restrictive bill, the House has effectively eliminated the most efficient and promising source of human stem cells. (The Weldon bill provides a10-year prison term and a $1 million fine as disincentives for would-be rogue scientists tempted to overlook the ban.)

What now?

Where does that leave biomedical researchers? With very little to work with. Most abortion foes will argue that scientists should use adult stem cells to investigate potential cures. But it’s universally accepted that adult stem cells used for research generally don’t perform as well as embryonic stem cells would.

Outside the Beltway, many in the scientific community view the vote with a mixture of resignation and intense frustration. "I think this decision is stupid, and I use that word very deliberately, because I don’t think anyone’s really thought about the issues here," says Greg Pence, a bioethics professor in the medical school at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. "What do people think happens in assisted reproduction? In a population of hopeful parents, it takes hundreds of embryos to successfully create one baby. What do they think happens to those other hundreds of embryos?"