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Bush Presses for Cloning Ban

Science: President says the procedure is a 'step toward a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts.'

April 11, 2002|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On a day tinged with warnings that biologists could misshape the human race, President Bush on Wednesday urged a tentative Senate to pass a total ban on human cloning, even if used as part of research into cures for disease and disability.

"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 president told about 175 lawmakers, religious activists, researchers and disabled people in the East Room of the White House.

He spoke of human "embryo farms" created by scientists to pursue cloning research. And he warned that, even if cloning yielded cures for disease, it "would create a massive national market" for women's eggs, "and exploitation of women's bodies that we cannot and must not allow."

The 15-minute speech marked the second time Bush has devoted a major address to controversial advances in biology, a reflection of the speedy pace of the science. In August, he devoted the first prime-time televised speech of his term to the subject of embryonic stem cells, the medically promising cells that come from dissected human embryos.

Bush spoke as lobbying intensified in the Senate in preparation for a vote on cloning, expected before the Memorial Day break in May.

Opponents of cloning for any purpose said Wednesday they brought several hundred members of antiabortion and religious groups to Washington to lobby lawmakers. But 40 Nobel Prize winners urged the Senate to allow cloning as part of medical research, warning that a ban "would impede progress against some of the most debilitating diseases known to man."

Cloning involves taking DNA from a donor, often from a skin or cheek cell, and merging it with an egg cell that has been stripped of its own genetic material. The result is an embryo with the same genetic makeup as the donor, although there are no credible claims that any scientist has produced a cloned human.

Theoretically, a human embryo created this way could be placed in a woman's uterus and grown into a child. This is called reproductive cloning, and the Senate, House and Bush are united in supporting legislation to make it a federal crime, subject to heavy fines and jail terms.

Some scientists want to create cloned embryos for another purpose. Starting with a patient's DNA, they would create an embryo and dissect it after five days for its stem cells. Those cells, in turn, might be grown into replacement heart, brain or other cells, as the patient required.

Cells created this way would presumably match the patient's genetic makeup and might be readily accepted by the person's body, avoiding the tissue rejection that is a major problem in transplants.

But cloning to make stem cells and tissue, often called therapeutic cloning, has drawn strong opposition from antiabortion groups and social conservatives. They say destroying an embryo is equivalent to destroying a child.

In a lopsided vote last year of 265-162, the House voted to bar cloning for any purpose, and Bush quickly praised the move. But the Senate is sharply divided. About 40 senators are believed to favor a total ban. An equal number are thought to back a proposal that would outlaw cloning to produce children while preserving it as a tool of medical research.

Supporters of therapeutic cloning could be on the verge of picking up an important vote. As several lawmakers prepared Wednesday to file legislation that would permit research cloning, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) placed a call asking them to hold off while he reviewed it with an eye toward offering support, two people familiar with events said. The measure would bar cloning for reproduction.

Hatch is a conservative and abortion opponent, and his support could draw other Republicans to the bill. His spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday.

Bush's speech was aimed in part at senators who have announced no position. It also won a warm response from social conservatives and religious activists, who form a core part of the Republican voting bloc and could be decisive in November's midterm elections.

In his remarks, Bush cheered the medical advances expected to come from deciphering the human genetic code. But he called for "restraint and responsibility" in embracing the new powers of science.

"We can pursue medical research with a clear sense of moral purpose, or we can travel without an ethical compass into a world we could live to regret."

Citing three reasons to ban all human cloning, he said a partial ban would be "unethical" because it would allow the destruction of embryos.

"Research cloning would contradict the most fundamental principle of medical ethics, that no human life should be exploited or extinguished for the benefit of another," he said.

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