Panel Urges State to Limit Human Cloning to Research, Therapy
Science: Report Calls for a Ban on Using the Process to Produce Babies

Rosie Mestel,
LA Times, Medical Writer
pp. A1, 2, B1, 14 (January 12, 2002)

California should ban cloning of human embryos for the purpose of producing babies but allow cloning for research and medical purposes, according to a long-awaited report drafted for the state government by a team of medical, legal and ethics experts. The Committee recommends that cloning be allowed only under regulation, and says cloned embryos should not be implanted in a womb or grown past a very early stage of embryo development--roughly 14 days after fertilization.

The report comes at a time of rapidly developing scientific interest in cloning and a growing national debate. At the Federal level, a stalemate has so far blocked efforts to enact legislation on the subject. The House of Representatives has passed a bill to ban all forms of human cloning. But in the Senate, scientific and health organizations that argue for allowing so-called therapeutic cloning so far appear to have enough support to block that bill.

The debate gained additional urgency late last fall when a Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technology, said it had cloned a handful of human embryos that grew to the six-cell stage. A lack of action in Washington could leave control of the issue to the states. As the state with the largest number of biotechnology companies--and one of the few that has a law banning cloning--California's actions could be of particular importance.

"Things seem to have come to a standstill right now in Congress," said state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), Head of the Legislature's Committee that will consider cloning. "I do think other states are watching and waiting. If Congress fails to act, then they may be looking to see what California's law looks like."

California has a temporary five-year ban on reproductive cloning that expires at the end of this year. The committee's report was mandated to help shape legislation before then. The unanimous report of the 12-member committee, which will be presented to the Legislature on Monday, is being lauded by experts in bioethics and science. Supporters praise the panel for carefully considering the contentious issue and reaching what they think is a palatable middle ground.

"It's a balanced and thoughtful report whose recommendations are based on good science and good ethics," said Eric Meslin, director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics in Indianapolis and former Executive Director of President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission.

But others, including Catholic and antiabortion groups, say the report's recommendations are morally repugnant because they permit human embryos to be destroyed. The committee's proposal is not "a ban on cloning at all -- it's a ban on live birth. It allows unlimited cloning and then requires the clones to be destroyed instead of being born alive. That's an immoral policy," said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The chief medical argument for cloning of embryos is linked to yet another controversial research arena--that of embryonic stem cells. Such cells, which exist in very young embryos, can develop into all the tissues of the body. If scientists can learn to guide these cells' fates, they could create new therapies for maladies such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes. If such tissues were grown from a clone of the intended patient, the body would be far less likely to reject the tissue as foreign, researchers believe. That would greatly increase the usefulness of the therapies while reducing side effects.

"There's enormous promise, though there's still a long way to go," said Committee Member Dr. Larry Shapiro, Professor and Head of the Department of Pediatrics at UC San Francisco and past president of the American Society of Human Genetics. The committee members said the medical promise of such research justifies it. Studying very early embryos raises fewer ethical problems than allowing cloned children to be born, Committee members said.

The panel recommended that any work on cloned human embryos be done with full informed consent of those supplying biological materials, and that all experiments--whether paid for with private or public funds--be subject to approval by a review board that would assess the ethical nature of the research. Additionally, the Committee recommended that embryos not be studied past the primitive "streak stage" of development, about 14 days after conception. Until that point an embryo does not have any nerve cells and therefore cannot feel pain or be aware of its circumstances.

Laurie Zoloth, a Bioethicist and Head of the Jewish Studies Department at San Francisco State, applauded those conclusions. "Their policy would allow creative science to go forward--which the House bill does not--yet allow for the public concern about the abuse of cloning to be recognized," she said.

But USC Bioethicist Prof. Alexander Capron said he would prefer to see a [temporary] moratorium on all forms of cloning. "If some forms are allowed, it will be almost impossible to prevent unscrupulous laboratories from trying to clone babies," he said. "Since researchers are nowhere near being able to produce clones for therapy, there would be little cost to continuing a moratorium," he added.

Cloning for reproductive purposes has considerably less scientific and political support. Since the first cloned mammal--the sheep Dolly --was created in 1997, many animals have been cloned, including [mice], cows, pigs, goats, and an endangered species of ox [gaur]. But only a small fraction of cloned embryos survive to birth and those that do can have serious health problems. Scientists suspect that these and other problems arise because the DNA of cloned animals is subtly abnormal -- it may, for instance, be already "old" because it came from cells of adult animals instead of eggs and sperm.

"The extent of such safety issues is still not clear, but the risks alone are more than enough to justify a ban on reproductive cloning," said Committee Member Henry Greely, Co-Director of the Program in Genomics, Ethics, and Society at Stanford University. "I'm not worried about a cow miscarrying very much, but I am worried about women miscarrying, having stillbirths and having babies with birth defects," he said. Beyond that, most of the Committee said "reproductive cloning should be banned for societal and moral reasons too," Greely said.

Some advocates for infertile couples disagree with that position. "The societal and safety risks of human cloning have been overstated, said Mark Eibert," a lawyer who works as a patient advocate for people with fertility problems. "Cloning is a cure for infertility," he said. "It should be developed in the same responsible way that other medical treatments are developed."