Late Edition: The Back Door to Human Cloning

Before September 11 erased our collective political memory, embryonic stem cell research was just about the hottest item on the national political agenda. President George W. Bush defused the issue temporarily when he announced last August that federal financial support would be limited to research on existing embryonic stem cell lines.

The boys in the white coats, already smarting from the prior decision of the House of Representatives to ban all human cloning, hooted and hollered that the president had set his face against technological progress. All manner of dire consequences were predicted. Cures for everything from aging to Parkinson’s disease, invariably described as “just around the corner,” would no longer be possible.

The news media, ever Pavlovian in their favorable response to the claims of scientific “breakthroughs,” trotted out various victims of dread disease who “just couldn’t understand” how Bush could be so cruelly indifferent to their plight. Powerful senators, supported by the biotech industry, vowed to overturn the president’s decision by legislation. Then came the murderous assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and time stopped.

Now that the sands of Kandahar have cooled, at least for the moment, the biotech lobbyists are back in business. Their goal remains the same: the production of human embryos for research. But they have adopted a cleverly deceptive strategy. Instead of a frontal attack against the president’s embryonic stem cell decision, they now seek to water down the House ban on human cloning by creating a false distinction between “reproductive” and “therapeutic” cloning. The former would be prohibited, which will allow senators to pretend that they oppose human cloning, but the latter will be permitted, thereby providing embryonic human beings for the laboratories of the biotech barons.

What they can’t get because of Bush’s embryonic stem cell decision they hope to acquire indirectly through the licensing of asexual reproduction. Aided by the sympathetic news media that systematically exaggerate the promise of embryonic stem cells while downplaying the dramatic achievements of adult stem cells, the industry’s hope is that a gullible public will buy into the new ploy.

In a strategically timed January report, the National Academies of Science (NAS) weighed in on the side of industry by giving the patina of “scientific” support to the politically contrived distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. Despite its prestige, the NAS is hardly a neutral observer on the issue. The committee that produced the report is dominated by members with a vested professional or financial interest in furthering embryonic stem cell research. Their antennae are as finely tuned to the nuances of politics and industry as they are to the ostensibly disinterested work of science.

The report had its intended effect. The media dutifully reported that the NAS committee supported a “cloning ban,” while fudging the implications of the report’s support for “nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells.” The usual senatorial suspects have called hearings, and Majority Leader Tom Daschle has scheduled a Senate vote. The leading vehicle at the moment is a bill sponsored by Diane Feinstein of California, which will provide biotech lobbyists with everything they want while pretending to “ban” human cloning.

Will this cynical tactic succeed?

That will depend in large part on whether Bush is willing to spend some of his political capital. His sympathies are not in question. In addition to his principled stance on embryonic stem cell research, he has made known his opposition to all forms of human cloning. As recently as January 22, in remarks to the annual Right-to-Life March, he reiterated his strong personal commitment to pro-life principles.

But stopping the biotech lobby in the Senate will require more than sympathetic generalities. The acolytes of scientific “progress” can be counted on to pull out all the stops. Cloned human embryos will be hailed as an endless fountain of miracle cures of every imaginable sort, and those who oppose the creation of human beings for research will be castigated as religious extremists. The president can deflate this rhetoric and expose the sham being perpetrated by biotech interests, but only if he’s willing to put some of his hard-earned but considerable prestige on the line. He did so in his embryonic stem cell decision, and he can do so again this time.

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