With the beginning of the new U.S. legislative calendar, the debate has restarted over whether or not to restrict human embryo cloning for biomedical purposes. Congress failed last year to reach a consensus on this vexing issue, so several lawmakers have reintroduced measures that would either outlaw all human cloning or permit it for research and therapeutic purposes.
It is still legal in the United States to reproduce a human being by cloning. Few people want that to happen, but measures to prevent it have been locked up in the debate over whether to allow early-stage embryo cloning for another purpose - to provide a supply of fetal stem cells for therapy. Stem cells can develop into any tissue and are widely believed to have the potential to cure many diseases.
But President Bush again urged Congress in his State of the Union speech Tuesday to outlaw this type of cloning, dismissing arguments that there is a difference between therapeutic and reproductive cloning.
"Because no human life should be started or ended as the object of an experiment, I ask you to set a high standard for humanity and pass a law against all human cloning," the president said.
A politically-divided Congress split on the question last year. The House of Representatives, controlled by Mr. Bush's Republican Party, passed a measure to his liking. But the Senate, where the Democratic Party had a razor-thin majority, struggled over opposing measures and failed to reach agreement before the legislative session ended.
Now, the process begins anew in a totally Republican-dominated Congress. Several fresh cloning measures have been introduced in both chambers, the latest from U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, a foe of any cloning.
"There is only one type of cloning, and when successful always results in the creation of a human," he said. "I, along with the President and the vast majority of Americans, do not believe that we should create a human life just to destroy it."
Because the Republicans control now both houses of Congress, cloning opponents would seem to have the advantage this year. But the Republican margins are not large and this is not strictly a partisan issue. In the Senate, several Republicans broke ranks with their fellow party members last year, arguing in favor of cloning for biomedical purposes. Several lawmakers have said the Senate may still not have enough votes this session to ban it.
Perhaps the most surprising proponent of therapeutic cloning is one of the most conservative Republican senators, Orrin Hatch. At a Senate hearing Wednesday, he disputed party colleague Brownback's notion that taking stem cells from a cloned embryo is destroying a human life because such a clone, he said, is not human.
"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 [laboratory] dish," he said. "I believe that human life requires and begins in a mother's nurturing womb."
This issue may be key in this debate. A Senate opponent of all cloning, John Ensign, observes that the very definition of when life begins is crucial to the legislative outcome.
"Whoever wins the battle of the definition will probably win this debate," he said. "So it is very important that we establish that cloning is cloning."
Senator Ensign and his allies argue that, despite claims to the contrary, cloning research is not promising. They also say that if therapeutic cloning were permitted, U.S. biotechnology companies would exploit women for their eggs, especially in poor countries. And they fear it could not be policed sufficiently to prevent cloned embryos from being used to create a person.
But former Alexandria, Virginia police officer Kris Gulden, paralyzed in a bicycling accident, told the lawmakers that she yearns for the day when stem cells from cloned embryos free her from her wheelchair.
"I find it unconscionable that the United States Congress would choose to prohibit this research, knowing that it could lead to cures and therapies for many devastating diseases and disabilities," she said.
Ms. Gulden may look longingly to Sweden, where a government-appointed commission Wednesday approved embryo cloning for medical research purposes. The Swedish government supports the approach and is working on legislation to allow it. What happens in the United States is still far from clear.