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Human Cloning: To Ban Or Not To Ban?

The report of a presidential commission sets the stage for a national debate on human cloning

By Christine Gorman

Time cover

(TIME, June 16) -- Call it the Dolly dilemma. The surprise announcement in February that a sheep had been cloned from the mammary cell of an adult ewe immediately raised the question of whether the same technique could be used to clone people. While the possibility of cloning opens up a new and exciting line of scientific study, it also seems to violate ancient taboos. To help sort out the issues--and to get the jump on a conservative Congress--President Clinton took two swift steps: he called for a moratorium on the use of federal funds for human-cloning research, and he asked his National Bioethics Advisory Commission to let him know within 90 days whether the new technology should be even more tightly controlled.

Late last week, having already missed one deadline, the commission finally issued its report. As expected, it recommended that the cloning of a human being, no matter who pays for it or for what reason it is done, should be made a criminal offense in the U.S. The White House is expected to quickly propose legislation that will codify that recommendation and give it the force of law.

That was the easy part. Nobody, not even the biotech industry, expected Washington to give the green light to human xerography. What is much more difficult--and what preoccupied the committee in six marathon sessions and countless E-mail messages--is where to draw the line on cloning research.

The fact is that the cloning of that ewe was, at heart, a triumph of human embryology. Before Dolly, scientists believed that the DNA of a mature mammalian cell, although it contained all the genetic information required to build an entire organism, locked the cell into being what it already was--skin or bones or soft tissue. The discovery that the DNA of a differentiated cell could be coaxed into behaving like an embryo was a breakthrough of the first order. Scientists are eager to examine that process more closely, hoping that they might discover by what mechanism individual genes are turned off or on. They might even tease out a few clues about the origins of cancer and hereditary diseases like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy.

But in today's political climate, research like this is a hot-button issue. The use of federal funds for research on human embryos is already prohibited, although that ban does not extend to work done in privately funded research labs. That's why private in vitro-fertilization clinics flourished in the 1980s with almost no federal regulation. What some commission members feared was that the same thing could happen with research on human cloning.

The research question proved so divisive, however, that the commission ultimately decided to duck it. The final 107-page report, "Cloning Human Beings," urged the President to keep in place the current moratorium on federally funded human- embryo research while requesting (but not requiring) that the private sector honor it.

Rather than settling the issue, the report is likely to mark the opening round of long and bitter debate. Several congressional committees have made plans to ask the commission members to explain their findings, perhaps as early as this week. Those hearings could get heated. "It's a question of where the pro-life movement wants to draw the line," says Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays, a Republican. "If they believe that life begins at conception, as they do, this could, sadly, become a very contentious issue."

Indeed, pro-life groups had begun attacking the commission's conclusions even before they were released. When word leaked out earlier in the week that it might allow human- cloning research as long as no cloned embryos were implanted in a womb, the panel was immediately attacked by John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe of the American Life League. The commission was permitting, he said, "two separate grave evils": the creation of a cloned human embryo and its destruction in the lab. As he put it, "This means it is O.K. to clone as long as you kill."

The panel's recommendations will disappoint many, including supporters of in-vitro fertilization. Several experts told the committee that cloning might be the only chance for many infertile couples to have their own genetically related children. That argument didn't persuade the commissioners, however. Their report concluded that "these cases are insufficiently compelling to justify proceeding with the use of such techniques."

But the panel didn't entirely shut the door. The members recognized that if further research made cloning safer and more familiar, society might one day change its mind. So they recommended that any legal ban be re-evaluated after three to five years. If Congress agrees, the cloning debate could continue well into the next century.

--Reported by Dick Thompson/Washington

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