Amid sharpening debate in Congress on whether human cloning is a proper tool for medical research, the Bush administration said Wednesday that it backs legislation to criminalize all human cloning, either to produce children or as part of the hunt for cures to disease.
There is broad support among lawmakers for outlawing cloning as a reproductive technique on grounds that it is morally repugnant and would produce unhealthy children. But while some lawmakers want to ban all human cloning, other lawmakers argue that cloning holds promise as a technology for creating replacement tissues for people with diabetes, heart problems or other ailments.
At a House hearing Wednesday, the Bush administration said it supports legislation sponsored by Reps. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that would make it a federal crime to produce a cloned human embryo for any purpose. The announcement, which had been widely anticipated, was made by Claude Allen, deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"Any attempt to clone a human being not only would present a grave risk to the mother and the child but also would pose deeply troubling moral and ethical issues for humankind," Allen said in written testimony.
A competing bill, sponsored by Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), aims to bar cloning as a means of producing children but not as a research technique.
Federal rules written during the Clinton administration bar the use of federal funds for any type of human cloning, but Bush would extend the ban to privately funded companies and researchers.
An attempt to bar human cloning in 1998 sank amid a similar debate over its potential in medical research.
Cloning is a technique for producing an embryo with the same genetic makeup as an existing organism. Scientists have successfully made cloned embryos of sheep, cows, goats and mice, and then transferred the embryos to surrogate mothers to produce babies.
Some scientists want to produce cloned embryos of medical patients but not grow them into children. Instead, they want to remove certain cells that exist only in embryos and use those cells to grow heart tissue, brain cells and other replacement tissue for patients.
Because the tissue would have the same genetic makeup as the patient, the patient would not have to take the powerful immune system suppressants that are common in heart, liver and other transplant cases.
However, religious conservatives say research into this kind of treatment is immoral because it creates and then destroys a human embryo. Under the Greenwood bill, they say, researchers could create embryos and then would be obligated by law to destroy those embryos because the bill would criminalize any attempt to grow those embryos into children.
In a separate but related debate, Bush must decide whether to allow federal funding of research that uses cells from non-cloned human embryos.
No one is known to have cloned a human, but lawmakers and some scientists believe that the technology has matured to the point where someone could do so.
"There are indeed people seeking out scientists to create cloned human embryos from their own DNA and are actively recruiting surrogate mothers to receive these embryos for implantation," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) in written comments Wednesday. "We do not know how much time we have until the first cloned human embryo is created and implanted."
Allen said the administration believes some technical issues need to be ironed out in the Weldon-Stupak bill before the White House can offer its full support.