Stem Cell Summer continues to bedevil the American public and its elected representatives. On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would outlaw "therapeutic cloning."
The Human Prohibition Act of 2001 was introduced by Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.). Therapeutic cloning is a not-yet-realized medical procedure that would involve taking a regular cell from a patient and installing its nucleus in an egg from which the nucleus has been removed. The cloned cell would divide for a week in a petri dish, to about 100 to 200 cells. Researchers would then take embryonic stem cells from it and transform those cells into heart, liver, pancreatic, or nerve cells that would be used to repair the patient's damaged or diseased organs. Since the cells are derived from the patient, they would be perfect matches for her body and thus avoid the problem of immune rejection that still plagues donated organ transplants today.
The Weldon bill would criminalize research on therapeutic cloning, punishing scientists by jailing them for up to 10 years and fining them up to $1 million. Furthermore, the Weldon bill would also punish "Any person or entity, public or private, [that] knowingly … import[s] for any purpose an embryo produced by human cloning, or any product derived from such embryo." (The House defeated a competing bill that would have explicitly banned "reproductive cloning" but would have allowed privately funded therapeutic cloning research to continue.)
Supporters of the ban were keen to separate their objections to using stem cells derived from therapeutic cloning from the broader debate over stem cells derived from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization efforts. "This bill does not stop embryonic stem cell research, it stops research on cloned embryonic stem cells," declared Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) during the floor debate.
Why exactly is the House of Representatives so eager to ban therapeutic cloning? Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) summed up the fears of many of those opposed to therapeutic cloning when he asked, "What would stop someone from implanting one of those clones?" He added, "The Weldon bill would end human cloning."
Opponents such as Smith fear that cloning embryos for stem cells would lead inevitably to an unscrupulous scientist implanting of some of those embryos into a woman's womb for the purpose of creating a cloned human baby. Make no mistake: Reproductive cloning that is trying to produce a cloned infant would be unethical at this point in time. The results of animal cloning indicate that it is extremely likely that such a cloned infant would suffer from severe birth defects. Both those who voted to ban therapeutic cloning and those who did not insisted that they were against reproductive cloning.
It may well be true that therapeutic cloning research might make reproductive cloning easier, but should therapies or technologies be banned because they could be abused? If potential for abuse is the threshold, then Congress will be very busy banning such things as automobiles, pain medicines, and tattoos. As Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) pointed out, "All research can be misused."
Waxman also argued that the Weldon bill contained two major drafting mistakes. First, the bill criminalizes some forms of infertility treatments that are already being used to help infertile couples have children of their own. Waxman was evidently speaking of treatments where donor egg cytoplasm is infused into a woman's own eggs to overcome the problems created by defective mitochondria in her eggs. This therapy, which necessarily involves the transfer of a small amount of genetic material, has resulted in the births of more than a dozen healthy kids so far. Second, and even more important, Waxman pointed to the bill's prohibition against importing "any product derived from" cloned embryos which he believes could ban the importation of medicines, proteins, enzymes, or other chemicals which cloning research in other countries might discover, even if those medicines are not produced using cloned embryos.
Tuesday was a particularly bad day for Michael West, head of Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. in Worcester, Massachusetts. His company is at the forefront of research aimed at one day using therapeutic cloning techniques to treat disease. "This bill sets a terrible precedent by criminalizing a whole area of research," says West. "This is lynch-mob time." He believes that opponents of embryonic stem cell research are afraid that they are losing the debate over that technology, so they have turned to banning this associated technology as a way achieve a political victory. "They are using this issue to impugn all embryonic stem cell research," West argues.
After the vote, Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization issued a press release stating, "Today's vote against the use of cloning technology for therapeutic research is a step backwards, and if eventually enacted into law, will reverse progress toward new medical treatments. Potentially millions of patients afflicted with Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, heart disease, and various cancers will be affected."
In other words, by passing this bill the House of Representatives is not only throwing out cloned babies; it is also jettisoning the research bathwater that might one day cure and comfort millions of suffering patients.