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Off Track on Cell Research

April 11, 2002

There is almost no support for so-called "reproductive cloning''--the morally repugnant notion of copying DNA for the purpose of creating a child. But what about creating a few human cells that might cure Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer or other serious diseases, without creating a fetus? That use, though it requires examination, certainly does not fall in the same class as baby-making.

President Bush threw out the medical with the immoral Wednesday in a White House speech calling for a comprehensive, no-exceptions ban on human cloning. He gave his support to legislation by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) that would impose a 10-year prison term and a $1-million fine on anyone who tried to clone human cells for any purpose.

Bush called for the support of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), which is about as likely as Bush supporting new taxes. There's a possibility that the president's speech was really meant to score points with ardent abortion opponents, many of whom were in the audience, and provide ammunition to use against Democrats in November. But even if that cynical scenario is true, Bush is rebuffing science.

The Brownback bill would bar federally funded scientists from engaging in so-called "therapeutic" or "research" cloning: replicating the DNA of early-stage embryos to pursue promising leads in disease treatments. As 40 Nobel Prize-winning scientists underscored in a letter sent to senators this month, the Brownback bill ''would impede progress against some of the most debilitating diseases known to man.''

Perhaps the worst result of the bill would be to drive public research into the private sector, where no federal ethics or public disclosure rules apply and where scientists would have no official oversight whatsoever. The possibility of that outcome should trouble everyone.

A sensible alternative to Brownback's bill is pending legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that distinguishes between human cloning and regenerative medicine, imposing stiff penalties on scientists who try to create a person while allowing scientists to continue seeking cures.

Given the recent, unconfirmed reports that Italian gynecologist Severino Antinori had produced a cloned human embryo, the need for regulation is urgent. Feinstein's bill does the job much more carefully than Brownback's overbearing legislation.

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