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Bush to Urge Senate to Ban All Cloning

April 10, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Bush will intensify his push today for a comprehensive ban on human cloning, raising the temperature in a debate that has been smoldering at the crossroads of ethics and science.

In a speech in the White House Rose Garden, Bush is expected to urge the Senate to ban cloning as a potential method for creating children and as a tool for research into cures for disease.

But the approaching Senate debate is presenting him with a political challenge even more complex than the emotional battle over stem cell research that divided his administration last summer.

Then, Bush fashioned a compromise on the sharply polarizing issue of federal support for stem cell research. Although he failed to fully satisfy either scientists who supported the research or religious conservatives who opposed it, he found a middle ground that largely defused the controversy.

Now, though, both sides agree that there is no obvious compromise available between those who want to ban all human cloning and those who would permit cloning for medical research while barring it for reproduction.

Bush has sided squarely with advocates of the comprehensive ban. But he has much less leverage than he did in the stem cell controversy to steer the debate toward his desired outcome.

In the stem cell decision, Bush used his executive powers to limit the federal government's involvement in the controversial research. But a cloning ban will require congressional action. And though the House has passed the comprehensive ban that Bush and social conservative groups favor, advocates of cloning in disease research--often called "therapeutic" cloning--are cautiously optimistic that they have the votes they need to block a total ban in the Senate.

That could produce a legislative deadlock and leave the United States as one of the few Western nations without a ban on reproductive cloning--an outcome hardly anyone on the political spectrum supports.

"If in fact nothing happens, it leaves us in a difficult and very unfortunate place," said one White House official who asked not to be identified.

There have been no credible claims that any scientist has produced a cloned child, and the latest experiments suggest that such a feat could be quite difficult. However, anxiety is rising that rogue scientists are pushing ahead; last week, an Italian scientist issued an unverified claim that he had successfully implanted a cloned embryo in a woman who is now about two months' pregnant.

The cloning debate hasn't yet attracted as much attention as last year's struggle over stem cell research. But activity on both sides is notably escalating as the Senate moves closer to a vote--expected sometime before the Memorial Day recess--on the emotional issue.

Last July, the House voted by a 265-162 margin to ban human cloning for all purposes. In the Senate, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a leading social conservative, has introduced similar legislation.

Brownback's proposal has emerged as a top priority for social conservatives and antiabortion groups. "This is huge. This is our biggest issue this year," said Connie Mackey, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council.

Fears of People as 'Manufactured Artifacts'

Last month, a coalition of environmental, feminist and other liberal leaders joined the conservatives in urging a ban on reproductive cloning and a moratorium on research cloning. "These conditions leave us vulnerable to being pushed into a new era of eugenic engineering, one in which people quite literally become manufactured artifacts," the group wrote.

The biotechnology industry, patients' advocates and scientific groups are rallying behind a pair of competing Senate proposals, one from Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the other from Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Those bills, which are expected to be merged as soon as this week, would ban cloning for reproduction but permit it as part of research into cures for disease or disability.

Supporters of research say cloning could hold the answer to tissue rejection, a problem that causes many tissue and organ transplants to fail.

They envision taking a skin or cheek cell from a patient and using it, through cloning, to create an embryo. Scientists would dissect the embryo at about 5 days old for its stem cells.

In theory, the stem cells could be grown into new cells for diabetics, heart patients or others whose own cells and tissues have failed. These replacement cells would have the same genetic makeup as the patient, so they would not be rejected by the patient's body, advocates believe.

A handful of American researchers already are pursuing such experiments.

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