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Clinton Bans U.S. Funds for Human Cloning Research

Science: He urges private sector to refrain from such experiments, warns of new ethical burdens. The federal agency that provides money doesn't support any projects.

March 05, 1997|MARLENE CIMONS and JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Stepping into an uncharted intersection of science and morality, President Clinton on Tuesday banned the use of federal funds for human cloning research and called upon private sector scientists to voluntarily refrain from such experiments.

Responding to last week's report that a Scottish scientist had cloned a sheep using genetic material from an adult sheep--and more recent news of the cloning of two monkeys in Oregon--Clinton cautioned that the emerging science is creating new ethical burdens for humanity even as it holds great promise for agriculture, medicine and other areas of commerce.

"Science often moves faster than our ability to understand its implications," said Clinton, who chose to ban funding for human cloning work while a special presidential bioethics panel studies the issues.

"That is why we have a responsibility to move with caution and care" to harness the emerging technology, he said.

"There is much about cloning that we still do not know," he added. "But this much we do know: Any discovery that touches upon human creation is not simply a matter of scientific inquiry, it is a matter of morality and spirituality as well."

Members of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission are expected to report back to the president this spring.

Clinton's action appeared to have more psychological impact than immediate scientific significance.

The National Institutes of Health, which provides the bulk of research money to U.S. scientists, does not now support any research projects involving human cloning.

Furthermore, as part of the 1996-97 legislation reauthorizing NIH, Congress explicitly prohibited any federally funded human embryo research.

Also, in 1994, Clinton banned the use of federal money to support the creation of human embryos solely for research purposes.

Clinton said the purpose of his action Tuesday was to close any possible loopholes in existing policy that still might allow research on human cloning to go forward.

The order does not affect animal cloning research.

"My own view is that human cloning would have to raise deep concerns, given our most cherished concepts of faith and humanity," Clinton said.

"Each human life is unique, born of a miracle that reaches beyond laboratory science," Clinton said as he issued the executive directive.

"I believe we must respect this profound gift and resist the temptation to replicate ourselves," he said.

"At the very least, however, we should all agree that we need a better understanding of the scope and implications of this most recent breakthrough."

Long grist to science fiction's mill and a distinctly distant future, the idea of cloning human beings abruptly seemed more plausible last week when Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut announced that he had succeeded in cloning a lamb named Dolly, which since has grown into a healthy adult--a genetic carbon copy of the single adult sheep that provided the genetic material.

Several days later, it was revealed that scientists in Oregon had cloned from embryonic cells two rhesus monkeys, a species much closer to that of humans.

Cloning is the production of an exact genetic duplicate of a living organism.

In normal sexual reproduction, an egg and a sperm--each containing half the genetic complement of an adult--fuse, combining their DNA to produce the complete genetic blueprint of a third adult.

In cloning, however, all of the genetic material comes from one parent, and the offspring is genetically identical to that parent.

NIH Director Harold E. Varmus said Tuesday that the president "was trying to provide some reassurance to the public that federal monies are not being used to do specific cloning of human beings," thus allowing the commission "time to think things through."

"This should calm people's fears about those nightmarish possibilities that are extremely unlikely, and get them to focus on the real dilemmas," Varmus added.

Art Caplan, director of the center for bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed, calling Clinton's move a sensible approach to a volatile scientific issue.

Human cloning research--at this time--"is too risky, too dangerous to undertake," Caplan said. "We're only at the Wright Brothers stage of development with respect to cloning technology," he said.

"A sheep is in a barn, and a monkey is in a cage," he said. But to reach that point, "a number of dead embryos and deformed animals were made as well. This is not a technique that is ready right now for human application. It makes sense to impose a moratorium and let society catch its collective moral breath."

Clinton's move did not seem to provoke the usual tension that results when a politician intervenes in scientific matters--further indication, perhaps, of the widespread recognition that cloning research is a moral minefield.

Political involvement in scientific research is neither new nor has it been partisan in nature.

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