Panels Step Up Efforts to Regulate New Field


In the weeks to come, ethics commissions, science conferences and legislative panels are expected to consider calls for new regulatory guidelines or outright bans on cloning.

President Clinton has temporarily banned federally funded cloning research until he hears policy recommendations from the national bioethics advisory board. Bills to control cloning are pending in Congress, as well as in state legislatures in California and New York.

The European Commission and UNESCO also are convening their own bioethics commissions for advice. Britain, Spain, Denmark, Germany and Australia have laws barring human cloning; legislation is pending in Canada.


On the morning that Scottish researcher Ian Wilmut’s experiment became public, several prominent scientists started organizing a major cloning conference, now scheduled to take place in Washington in June.


Indeed, biologists have been scrupulous in ensuring open public debate over controversial experiments, said science policy expert Sheldon Krimsky at Tufts University. He was among the first members of a federal panel formed in the 1970s that until recently regulated recombinant DNA experiments.

“In biology, we probably have advanced further in terms of trying to anticipate [the consequences of] these things than we have in some other areas. With nuclear technology or chemical technology, we are still playing catch-up,” Krimsky said.

Biologists responded to an earlier generation of concerns by drawing up voluntary guidelines that strictly limited genetic engineering experiments and persuaded the federal government to adopt them for all federally funded research. Now, with the most serious safety concerns allayed, most experiments are routinely supervised by several regulatory agencies.

“Scientists, by regulating themselves, did a proper job,” said USC molecular biologist French Anderson. Many researchers hope that agencies will handle cloning advances in much the same fashion.

Nevertheless, several leading biomedical experts are skeptical of the government’s ability today to offer the public unbiased advice on the new biotechnology.


Previous government efforts to evaluate the broader impact of research into human biology have been half-hearted at best, they said.

Congress’ only formal biomedical advisory board went out of business in 1990 without ever having held a single public hearing. The only legislation ever enacted to regulate the commercial conception business has never been funded. The presidential bioethics commission had no funding until the cloning controversy made the group the focus of news coverage.


Some academic researchers warn that advanced biology has become so commercialized that any objective scientific advice may be hard to come by. Federal agencies responsible for funding the new technology are so eager to promote research that they are not willing to consider the full, social impact of innovations in biology they fund, several biomedical experts said.

“There is a hostility to open scrutiny or to suggestions there may be impacts that are not considered,” said Lori Andrews, an expert on genetic engineering and reproductive technology at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Andrews last year resigned as head of a federal task force on the ethical, legal and social implications of human gene research because she believed that some federal officials were blocking a full discussion of the impacts of human gene research.

“We were not allowed to look into things in the depth that Congress and the public were being told we were,” Andrews said. “There really was conflict of interest to have the people who want the research to go forward creating the agenda for what social issues got discussed.”


Earlier this year, the panel, now chaired by sociologist Troy Duster at UC Berkeley, formally reported its “serious concerns” about the conflicts and urged that the secretary of health and human services revamp the way the federal government evaluates the ethical, legal and social implications of the Human Genome Project and other human gene research.

But for many people, the unexpected discovery of cloning represents such a shock to the natural order of things that they aren’t sure where to begin the effort to assert control over the technology, said sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

Whose voices should be heard, and what weight should they be given?

“We are breaking completely away from the only way in which human beings and most animal life reproduce. How do we assess these risks? How do we talk about them?” said USC law professor Michael Shapiro, an expert on the new technology of reproduction.

“This is demoralizing in a way different from the way pollution or global warming affects us,” Shapiro said. “Here, we have a threat to the value system itself.”