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THE NATION

Cloning Receives a Makeover

Politics: Nuances of language helped reframe the debate and derail an all-out ban in Congress.

June 17, 2002|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — They were up against some of the most powerful forces in politics: President Bush, the antiabortion movement and the Roman Catholic Church. But when patients and scientists set out this year to preserve human cloning as a legal tool of medical research, their toughest opponents also included a 24-year-old movie, "The Boys From Brazil."

The 1978 thriller featured a rogue scientist trying to rebuild the Nazi movement by cloning Adolf Hitler, and it helped give cloning a creepy public image. Thanks in part to that image, a total ban on cloning passed the House last year by a 100-vote margin and seemed on its way to becoming law.

Today, however, some lawmakers who once denounced cloning have embraced it as a potential way to cure disease. And last week, the campaign to ban all human cloning collapsed in the Senate. Supporters of the ban acknowledged that they were well short of the 60 votes needed for passage, and they backed out of a debate on the Senate floor that they had been seeking for months.

Prospects for a total ban are now "substantially, substantially" reduced, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said, though they are not dead.

For a small group of lobbyists from the biotechnology industry, scientific societies and such patient groups as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, derailing the effort to ban all cloning has been a major victory. It was accomplished through many of the traditional tools of Washington lobbying, including personal appeals to lawmakers, television advertising and placing opinion pieces in hometown newspapers.

But perhaps their most important success was in changing the perception of cloning among lawmakers. Cloning, in essence, was given a makeover.

"Cloning is an abstraction, and the battle has been a matter of trying to fill in that abstraction for the American public and policy-makers," said David Prentice, a professor of life sciences at Indiana State University who is advising anti-cloning senators. "If you can control the terminology, then you control the debate."

From their early organizational meetings in January, supporters of cloning in research decided to come up with new language to highlight that cloning could help sick patients. "We were battling a science fiction genre that had existed for 40 years," said Michael Manganiello, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which led the lobbying campaign in defense of research cloning. "What do you call this so that it's not seen as science fiction?"

Two words were particularly problematic. One was "cloning" itself. The word refers to a range of scientific techniques for making a copy of something--a cell, an organism, a fragment of DNA.

But to most people, it had come to mean growing a single cell from a person into a whole new copy of that person, akin to the vision of "The Boys From Brazil." Adding to the alarm at this type of cloning, two teams received wide attention in the last year for vowing to create cloned children. One group is led by an obscure religious leader who says scientists from another planet told him to start cloning.

Most disease researchers and patient advocates say they have no interest in creating children through cloning. Instead, they are looking for ways to take a cell from a patient's skin or cheek and transform it into stem cells that might be fashioned into cures for disease. To accomplish this, the skin or cheek cell would be merged with an egg cell to create an embryo, which would be dissected at 5 days of age for its stem cells.

Changes in Terminology

This technique is often called therapeutic cloning, but many advocates did not want to use the word "cloning" at all. Adopting language from scientists, they began calling the technique "somatic cell nuclear transfer," "nuclear transplantation" or "regenerative medicine."

In time, some lawmakers began to insist that cloning in medical research is not even cloning. "It's commonly referred to as therapeutic cloning, and that's a misnomer," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) at a May hearing. "It isn't cloning at all."

"There is great misunderstanding in the use of the word 'cloning,' " said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last week. "I use 'stem cell research' or 'nuclear transplantation.' "

Another problematic term was "embryo," a word that was particularly troubling for antiabortion lawmakers. Because they opposed a woman's right to destroy an embryo during pregnancy, they faced a hurdle in arguing that scientists should be free to destroy embryos for their stem cells.

In time, some lawmakers began to argue that an embryo created through cloning is substantially different from one made through the traditional merger of egg and sperm.

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