July 31, 2001 (Washington) -- Mixing bioethics with politics, the House of Representatives voted Tuesday to criminalize all human cloning activities.
In a 265-162 vote, the House approved legislation from Reps. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), MD, and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that outlaws cloning and imposes stiff fines for violations. The bill also bars the import of any products derived from human embryos.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R- Wisc.) said, "this is about providing moral leadership to a watching world." Currently there are no clear U.S. rules governing privately funded cloning.
Members of the House were in overwhelming agreement that "reproductive" cloning to initiate pregnancy was unethical and should be outlawed.
But Tuesday's debate was especially contentious, because it entered murky ethical and medical waters involving another potential purpose for human cloning.
The Weldon bill would prohibit the use of a controversial new laboratory technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer. Many scientists believe it may help battle human diseases, but pro-life advocates and others say it is immoral, creating human life only to destroy it.
The technique involves removing the nucleus from an unfertilized egg, and then inserting an adult's DNA into the empty egg. Scientists then induce the egg to begin to divide into early-stage stem cells, which would be manipulated and removed by scientists.
In 1996, researchers used the technique to clone Dolly the sheep, the first mammal ever cloned from an adult cell.
Lawmakers rejected, 249-178, an alternative bill from Reps. James Greenwood (R-Penn.) and Peter Deutsch (D- Fla.) that would have permitted "therapeutic" cloning using the transfer technique.
Some lawmakers insisted the product of the transfer procedure is a human embryo, and that it is immoral to create life only to use it for scientific study. But others said the clump of cells could not rightly be called a human life.
Greenwood criticized the "ridiculous" concept that putting some of his cheek cells into an empty egg in a petri dish would create a human "soul".
But Weldon countered, "that's like saying Dolly is not alive."
At the same time, many of the nation's leading research universities and prominent national disease groups supported the Greenwood measure. Greenwood and other lawmakers said that their bill would enable valuable stem-cell research, which could bring miracle cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, type 1 diabetes, and other diseases.
The Weldon bill, by contrast, claimed Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), "makes cutting-edge science a crime."
But according to the National Right to Life Committee, the Greenwood bill would give "federal approval to registered bio-tech firms to set up human embryo farms ... in which human embryos would be created in great numbers for the specific purpose of using them as medical commodities."
Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts biotech firm, has already announced that it plans to begin stem-cell research using somatic cell nuclear transfers with human DNA.
Meanwhile, President Bush continues to struggle over a final decision on whether to permit federal funding for stem-cell research using cells taken from "leftover" embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics.
Weldon emphasized that his bill would not bar research on cells taken from these embryos.
President Bush supports the Weldon bill, but how the Democratic-controlled Senate will address the issue is unclear.