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Cloning Advocates, Foes Battle for Senators' Votes

Medicine: Both sides, desperate to pass a bill, are modifying their positions to sway undecided lawmakers.

April 17, 2002|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With an upcoming Senate vote on the issue too close to call, both sides in the dispute over the use of human cloning in disease research are exploring ways to modify their competing bills to win support from the 10 or so undecided lawmakers.

The discussions show how the tight nature of the battle may wind up changing the final shape of anti-cloning legislation. The issue is one of the most emotional and politically volatile before Congress this year.

Lobbyists who support cloning for medical research are talking up a requirement that no cloning take place in or near fertility clinics. In addition, they may propose that researchers be barred from preserving cloned embryos in frozen storage, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Reproductive Cloning Concerns Senators

These rules would be aimed at answering critics, including President Bush, who say that embryos created for research will inevitably be misappropriated and placed into women as part of attempts to create children.

The new regulations might make research cloning more palatable to some senators, allowing them to argue that safeguards are in place to prevent abuse, said one aide to an undecided lawmaker. Like others familiar with legislative maneuvering, he did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

Among opponents of cloning in medical research there is discussion of dropping a provision from their bill that would impose hefty fines and jail time on anyone who imported a medical treatment from another country that had been created through cloning.

No such treatments now exist. But some senators have said they are wary of hindering patients from seeking cures for diseases.

Cloning involves using a cell from a person to create an embryo, which has the same genetic makeup as the person who donated the cell.

There is broad support in Congress for banning anyone from creating embryos this way and then implanting them in women to produce children.

But the Senate is divided on whether scientists should be able to create embryos for research. Among other things, researchers want to dissect the embryos for their stem cells, the cells that have drawn intense interest for their potential to lead to cures for disease.

The House of Representatives and Bush favor a ban on human cloning for any purpose, and about 40 to 45 senators agree. An equal number of senators are believed to support a measure that would ban cloning for reproduction but preserve it as a tool of medical research.

The dispute raises the possibility that no ban on cloning will become law, and that the issue will become prominent in the fall campaigns for control of the closely divided Senate.

Supporters of a total ban say it is immoral to create human embryos only to destroy them. They also say that a partial ban is unworkable.

"Cloned human embryos created for research would be widely available in laboratories and embryo farms," Bush asserted in a speech last week. "Once cloned embryos were available, implantation would take place. Even the tightest regulations and strict policing would not prevent or detect the birth of cloned babies."

Bush also said cloning would create a "massive national market" for the human eggs that the process requires, leading to the exploitation of women.

In discussions with undecided senators, advocates of cloning in medical research have tentatively suggested several ways to address the criticisms.

Research teams might be required to offer psychological tests or other screening to women who offer their eggs for cloning research.

Other rules would seek to ensure that cloned embryos are kept away from fertility clinics, where non-cloned embryos are routinely created and transferred to women as part of high-tech methods for conceiving children.

Researchers could also be required to register with the Food and Drug Administration before undertaking cloning. And the federal officials might be required to report violations of the cloning rules to state licensing officials, who could revoke the right to practice if the violator is a doctor or other licensed professional.

Frist Opposes Importation Ban

The proposed regulations have not been approved by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) or Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), lead sponsors of the legislation that would bar cloning only for reproduction, people familiar with events said.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), sponsor of the measure that would ban all human cloning, has not agreed to drop the provision that would bar the importation of medical treatments derived from cloned embryos, said his spokesman, Erik Hotmire.

But Bill Kristol, a conservative activist and founder of an anti-cloning group, said recently, "There's some unhappiness about the importation ban, and there's been indications that Brownback might remove that himself."

The importation ban is opposed by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who nonetheless supports Brownback's legislation. As the Senate's only physician, Frist's opinions on health matters are closely watched by his colleagues.

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