Archive for Saturday, May 4, 2002

Finding common ground on cloning

May 4, 2002

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— I don't think I'll be inviting Harry and Louise to dinner with Harriet and Louis anytime soon. Somehow I don't think they'd make it through the salad course without hurling lettuce at each other.

These two couples are airing opposing views about human cloning and human cures in ads on radio and TV. They have been sent out to influence the Senate vote that's due later this month.

For those of you have been following this debate about cutting-edge science and retro politics, here's a secret: the senators actually do all agree on one thing. No one in the U.S. Congress wants to clone a baby.

They all want to ban reproductive cloning. But the great and heated divide is over whether the government should also ban research and therapeutic cloning.

So Harry and Louise yes, the same pair who helped deep-six the Clinton health plan were brought out of retirement to fight a bill that would ban cloning for research. This bill, in Louise's words "puts scientists in jail for working to cure our niece's diabetes." Research, she says, is about making medicine, not babies.

Meanwhile, Harriet and Louis have gone on the radio as a counter-couple. They're in favor of the total ban. They oppose any bill allowing research or, in Harriet's words, "creating embryos to destroy them for medical experiments." Biotech companies, she says, care about profits, not cures.

The two sides are fighting hard to frame this debate and win over the public. After all, we may not get the details quick, quick, define a "somatic cell nuclear transfer" but we get the drift. Most Americans are gung-ho for medical progress that might cure diseases like Alzheimer's. But most are also squeamish about creating embryos for research.

Let's pause for a brief and oversimplified science lesson. Cloning involves taking an egg, removing its nucleus, and adding the nucleus of an adult cell say a skin cell back into it. The tailor-made stem cells that grow from this procedure may eventually be used in medicine. But this cloned embryo can't become a baby unless it's transplanted into a womb.

The distinction between using an embryo to make babies and to make medicine is too often lost in this debate. Indeed, this issue has been inexorably linked with abortion politics because some believe any embryo is a person.

But it's not just pro-lifers who have reservations about research. Some women's health advocates worry that women will be exploited as egg donors. Others believe the whole slope is so slippery that unless you ban all cloned embryos, some will inevitably end up in a crib. And still others believe that this science is the first step on the road to designer babies.

All of our hopes and fears add up to a political stand-off. The House of Representatives already voted to prohibit research in this country and make it criminal for any American to seek treatment abroad. The Senate, even with Orrin Hatch coming out in favor of therapeutic cloning, appears to be reaching a deadlock. The likelihood of getting any bill passed this year is, well, as dim as the chance of Harriet and Louise becoming best friends.

Here is the ironic heart of the matter. Remember what virtually everyone agrees on? Don't make babies out of clones.

But while we argue about the details of therapeutic cloning, there's no law at the moment against reproductive cloning. While we fight about the future, the present is full of private companies going about on their unregulated business. While we debate the fine points of biogenetics, some nut cases forgive the lay terminology are bragging about how they intend to clone the first baby.

Our country even refuses to sign the international agreement that would ban the cloning of human beings ... because that treaty doesn't also ban research.

Doesn't it make sense to agree on what we already agree about? This is the alternative that Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has suggested in a fit of pragmatism. Among the myriad, arcane and controversial bills on this subject, his wins for both brevity and simplicity. It prohibits cloning of a human being. Period. Full stop. It doesn't say a word about research.

"It seems to me it would be smart to separate the questions," says Dorgan. "I think the proper approach for Congress is to reach agreement where it exists. I don't know of any member of the House or Senate who's said, I support cloning of a human being. "

We've been talking about this subject for five years. Why not cut to the chase, pare away the politics, ban human cloning and leave the research question for another day?

That's something that Harry and Harriet, Louis and Louise can all drink to.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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