Scientists should not have to leave the United States to pursue discoveries that could cure diseases like Alzheimer's and diabetes. They may not have much choice if the Senate supports a ban, already passed in the House of Representatives, on any kind of human cloning.
The sweeping measure forbids not just attempts to create human copies, which is wrong on every level, but also the culturing of cells for promising lines of disease research.
Just before the Feb. 27 vote on the House bill, Rep. Dave Weldon's (R-Fla.) HR 534, one of its supporters, Rep. Sue Wilkins Myrick (R-N.C.), swept all forms of cloning into a hazily defined evil -- "the most ghoulish and dangerous enterprise in human history."
In fact, so-called reproductive cloning, producing a child with the same genes as its parent, is a world apart from therapeutic cloning, in which researchers stimulate an unfertilized human egg to develop into a blastocyst -- a rounded cavity bounded by a single layer of cells.
These "stem" cells specialize, becoming hundreds of different kinds of tissues. Many scientists believe that when they figure out how the cells differentiate, they will be able to cure or alleviate conditions including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cystic fibrosis, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.
Next week, the Senate will begin debate on its version of the Weldon bill, the newly introduced S 245, by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), which would punish scientists who try to use therapeutic cloning, subjecting them to up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million.
Rather than wielding this sledgehammer, the Senate should take up S 303, a bill by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) that would prohibit reproduction by cloning but allow therapeutic cloning. It would also adopt strict regulations modeled after a successful oversight system that Britain put into effect two years ago.
At a January Senate hearing, Hatch, an abortion opponent and former medical liability defense lawyer, said, "After many conversations with scientists, ethicists, patient advocates and religious leaders and many hours of thought, reflection and prayer, I reached the conclusion that human life does not begin in the petri dish."
Therapeutic cloning is supported by 40 Nobel laureates, a majority of the members of the President's Council on Bioethics and advocates for disease research such as former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who has watched her husband, the former president, deteriorate from Alzheimer's.
The legislators who will debate cloning restrictions this month are no doubt motivated by strong personal convictions. When they take up the competing bills, however, they should act in the larger interests of the public health.
As Hatch recently pointed out in arguing against the Brownback bill, "A critical feature of being pro-life is helping the living."