International researchers defended their plans to begin human cloning experiments at a conference in Washington Tuesday. The plans are sure to intensify debate over the ethics of human cloning. The controversy has already ignited passions in the U.S. Congress.
Earlier this year, cloning advocate Dr. Panos Zavos attempted to convince a U.S. congressional panel of the benefits of cloning research describing it as "a technology that can help people. We are talking about the development of a technology that can give an infertile and childless couple the right to reproduce and have a child and, above all, complete its life cycle," he said.
Just last week, the full House of Representatives debated the issue. Although lawmakers are united in their opposition to cloning humans, several argued that scientists should be allowed to clone human embryos to produce stem cells that could help find cures for a range of diseases.
Among those who support further research is New York Democrat Louise Slaughter. "If we stifle our nation's research efforts, patients will suffer as well," Ms. Slaughter said. "This research holds the potential to treat diseases that afflict millions of Americans, including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, brain or spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis."
But in the end the House voted to ban all human cloning, including cloning for reproduction and medical research.
Texas Republican Tom Delay is a leading anti-abortion advocate in the House who opposes the use of stem cells in medical research. "This exploitive, unholy technique is no better than medical strip mining," he says. "The preservation of life is what is being lost here."
The cloning ban now awaits Senate action.
President Bush also opposes human cloning. But he is expected to announce soon whether he will allow federal funding for medical research using stem cells from human embryos.
Some experts who follow the debate over cloning say the American public has yet to become fully engaged in the controversy. Michael Stebbins, director of the Institute of Ethics at Gonzaga University in Washington state, says, "I certainly feel apprehension about it because I believe that we are headed down this road awfully fast without very much reflection," Mr. Stebbins says. "And to the extent I see people reflecting on the issue, I don't see them reflecting on it very deeply."
Michael Stebbins says that any serious discussion of the cloning issue must include grappling with some basic questions. "It is a question about the meaning of human life," Mr. stebbins says. "It is a question about the identity of the human individual, who we are as a people and who we recognize as human beings like us. The big question is, are human embryos us?"
The cloning of humans and the use of human embryos to provide stem cells for medical research are also divisive issues elsewhere. Italy has banned cloning outright. But in Britain, Parliament voted in January to permit the cloning of human embryos for the purposes of stem cell research.