"Advances in biomedical technology must never come at the expense of human conscience," President Bush said yesterday (text | audio | video). "As we seek to improve human life, we must always preserve human dignity. And therefore, we must prevent human cloning by stopping it before it starts. … Allowing cloning would be taking a significant step toward a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts, and children are engineered to custom specifications; and that's not acceptable."

The speech was aimed squarely at the U.S. Senate, which is considering a bill banning all human cloning. The U.S. House has already passed such a bill. The New York Times reports that the Senate is split 40-40 on the comprehensive ban, with 20 senators still deciding how to vote. But there's trouble on the horizon: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) will introduce a bill banning only reproductive cloning and allowing so-called therapeutic cloning for research purposes. Sen. Sam Brownback, the sponsor of the comprehensive ban bill, says he expects a vote by Memorial Day.

Though Feinstein's bill could be spun as a "compromise" measure, Bush made it clear that it was not. Allowing therapeutic cloning would be unethical since it would "require the destruction of nascent human life," it would make a ban on reproductive cloning "virtually impossible to enforce," and it would "create a massive national market for eggs and egg donors, and exploitation of women's bodies that we cannot and must not allow." Furthermore, he said, "The benefits of research cloning are highly speculative."

One "outside adviser to the White House" on the matter tells the Times that Bush has a much stronger moral vision on this issue than he did on whether embryonic stem cells should be allowed for research purposes. "He thought stem cells was a very difficult call, morally," the adviser said. "And I think he was genuinely agonized about that. I think he thinks if he can't draw this line, no one is ever going to draw any lines."

One Senator who played heavily in both debates is Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). His support of a comprehensive ban on cloning is crucial, since he's the Senate's only physician and is widely seen as the congressional leader on issues of medical issues and bioethics. His support of a comprehensive ban, expressed both on the Senate floor Tuesday and in the op-ed page of today's Washington Post, wasn't a surprise (he has called for a ban before), but Frist doesn't always side with the prolife movement. He strongly supports embryonic stem-cell research, for example. "Regardless of our religious backgrounds, most of us remain uncomfortable with the idea of creating cloned human embryos to be destroyed in an experiment," he said. "Given the serious ethical concerns this research raises, the fact that promising embryonic stem cell research will continue even under a cloning ban, the lack of significant research in animal models and the existence of promising alternatives, I am unable to find a compelling justification for allowing human cloning today."

Article continues below

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.) disagrees. "The president wants to ban it all," he said after the President's speech. "And I think he's wrong, and I think the American people are on our side of this issue."

Actually, they're not. Americans overwhelmingly support the comprehensive ban, as the President noted in his speech. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that "Americans are united in opposition to human cloning by more than four-to-one (77%-17%)." The survey also found that "support for federal funding of stem-cell research has eroded somewhat since last August," which suggests that the more people are learning about such bioethical dilemmas, the more they're siding against such experimentation. And almost half of those who still support government funds for stem-cell research say they might change their minds on the issue while those who oppose the research say they'll stick to their convictions.

Most media commentators, however, oppose the ban, and highlight a letter sent by 40 Nobel Prize winners to the Senate supporting therapeutic cloning. "The Nobelists … held the higher moral ground in focusing on the great promise of cloning for curing intractable diseases," editorialized The New York Times.

What was most disturbing about Mr. Bush's remarks was their black-and-white, even apocalyptic tone. It was unfair and irresponsible for him to imply that those who wish to pursue therapeutic cloning that could benefit millions of suffering humans are traveling "without an ethical compass into a world we could live to regret." The real regret would come if we fail to pursue some of the most promising medical research spawned by modern biotechnology.

The Los Angeles Times took a more libertarian approach, worrying about the criminal penalties for cloning (10 years in prison and a $1 million fine) under Brownback's "overbearing" bill. Furthermore, lamented the paper, "There's a possibility that the president's speech was really meant to score points with ardent abortion opponents, many of whom were in the audience, and provide ammunition to use against Democrats in November. But even if that cynical scenario is true, Bush is rebuffing science."

Article continues below

What the Los Angeles Times and others fail to acknowledge is opposition to cloning is not limited to opponents of abortion. In fact, many prochoice advocates support such a ban. One such person is Francis Fukuyama, who takes aim those who say cloning should be legal because it is inevitable. "Pessimism about the inevitability of technological advance is wrong (though it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if adopted by too many people)," he wrote in the current issue of Foreign Policy. "The speed and scope of technological development can indeed be controlled. … social regulation does not need to prevent all breaches to be effective. Every country makes murder a crime and attaches severe penalties to homicide, yet murders nonetheless occur. But the prevalence of murder has never been a reason for giving up on the law or on attempts to enforce it."

In a column for the online magazine Slate, former editor Michael Kinsley took aim at liberals who oppose cloning, especially those who do so for environmental reasons. "The only argument these folks offer against therapeutic cloning—beyond poetical clichÉs and vague luddism—is the slippery slope: Therapeutic cloning may lead to the other kind which may lead to genetic manipulation of the human race." That's not a good enough reason for "denying ourselves the fruits of scientific breakthroughs," such as treatments for Parkinson's, writes Kinsley, who has the disease. "Real human beings will pay the cost in wrecked or shortened lives."

In yesterday's BreakPoint radio commentary, Chuck Colson said that's the wrong calculus. "Human value and dignity don't depend on what we can do or what we have the potential to do," he says. "Human cloning creates an embryonic human being—someone in the image of God—for one purpose only. The embryonic human being is killed and 'disaggregated'—a polite way of saying, 'pulled to pieces for medical purposes.' It is barbaric, borders on the cannibalistic, and must be banned."

One thing both supporters and opponents of the comprehensive ban agree on is that it's time to act. (Okay, so some people disagree: "Despite the rushed feeling that we must have a federal policy covering all stem-cell research, there is plenty of time for legislative experimentation in the states," wrote Curt Civin and Samuel Rosenberg in The Philadelphia Inquirer). The Roslin Institute, which cloned the famous sheep Dolly, is applying for permission to conduct research on human embryos, The Scotsman reports today. Britain allows therapeutic cloning, but bans it for reproductive purposes.

Article continues below

On a more sensational note, the world is particularly concerned about unconfirmed (and, among many, doubted) claims that Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori impregnated a woman with her own clone. "The rumor … serves to remind us of how quickly cloning technology is advancing," wrote Stefan C. Friedman in the New York Post. "We need an anti-cloning law before it's too late—and time is running out."

Related Elsewhere

What is Weblog?

See our past Weblog updates:

April 10 | 9 | 8
April 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1
March 28 | 27 | 26 | 25
March 22 | 21 | 20 | 19 | 18
March 15 | 14 | 13 | 12 | 11
March 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4