Stepping into an uncharted intersection of science and morality, President Clinton on Tuesday banned the use of federal funds for human cloning research, and called upon private sector scientists to voluntarily refrain from such experiments.
There is no evidence that scientists are experimenting with cloning humans, with or without federal money. But only after scientists in Scotland reported last week that they had cloned a sheep, did researchers in Oregon reveal that they had cloned two rhesus monkeys, an even closer step to reproducing humans.
“Each human life is unique,” Clinton said Tuesday, “born of a miracle that reaches beyond laboratory science. I believe we must respect this profound gift and resist the temptation to replicate ourselves.”
Clinton also asked for a voluntary moratorium by those working with private money, at least through May, when he is to receive a report on the legal and ethical implications of cloning humans from the National Bioethics Advisory Commission.
Scientists and lay people alike have already posited the potential benefits of human replication, such as helping an infertile couple have children, and there are no doubt researchers eager to accomplish such a landmark scientific breakthrough.
But generally, scientists, public and private, said Tuesday that they welcomed the moratorium, even though they said they were unaware of anyone conducting such research.
Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, said after the president’s announcement that there was “no commercial interest” in human cloning - although animal cloning offered potentially huge financial rewards - and that the moratorium was called not so much to halt any scientific research but to reassure the public.
The president “wanted to comfort people that nothing was going on with federal money,” Varmus said. He said the ban also might curb any “rush to legislate” that may strike Congress, which begins hearings on cloning Wednesday.
Others were not so sanguine.
Dr. James Grifo, division director of reproductive endocrinology at New York University, who has a private infertility practice, said Clinton’s statement would contribute to fears that will stifle research and ultimately hurt patients. He said Clinton made the announcement to show “I’m in charge, I’ve got things under control, I’m going to protect you from these evil scientists.”
A Time/CNN poll found that 93 percent of Americans disapprove of cloning humans. (Sixty-six percent disapproved of cloning animals, and 56 percent said they would not eat meat from cloned animals.)
Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and author of books on reproductive technology, called the ban “an important symbolic message, but of little practical import.” Human cloning will be driven by the market, she said.
“Everybody is suggesting it will come through the private clinics, which are not heavily regulated and are used to giving the customer what he or she wants, operating in many states on a philosophy of ‘Just show me the money,”’ she said.
While the president has banned federal financing for creation of human embryos, and Congress has banned financing for research on human embryos, Clinton said “there are loopholes that could allow the cloning of human beings if the technology were developed.”
Dr. Roger Pedersen, a reproductive sciences professor at the University of California at San Francisco, shared Varmus’ view that the ban’s value would be to help “quell the sort of mob hysteria that attends this issue,” but said he was concerned about the effect of regulation.
“It exacts a price on our progress and on the imagination of people who may be able to think beyond present circumstances about ways to use this knowledge to benefit humanity,” he said. Still, he called the ban a necessary step to “calm people’s fears.”
xxxx GENETIC DUPLICATE Cloning is the production of an exact genetic duplicate of a living organism. In normal sexual reproduction, an egg and a sperm - each containing half the genetic complement of an adult - fuse, combining their DNA to produce the genetic blueprint of a third adult. In cloning, however, all of the genetic material comes from one parent, and the offspring is genetically identical to that parent.