by Richard M. Doerflinger
July 19, 2002
When President Bush appointed his President's Council on Bioethics in January, proponents of human cloning said the panel was "stacked" against them.
This was a false charge, designed to discredit in advance anything the Council produced. Actually the President bent over backwards to include points of view which sharply differ from his own.
On July 11 the Council released its final report on human cloning. Based on remarks by some members at Council meetings, I had begun to think nothing helpful on this issue would result. In some respects, the report (available at www.bioethics.gov) is a pleasant surprise. In one respect, however, it raises more questions than it answers.
First, ten of 17 voting members support a four-year ban on all human cloning – including cloning human embryos for research. While seven members support a permanent ban, three others favor at least a moratorium – to prevent abuses by researchers, and allow more time to debate a final policy or discuss ways one might "regulate" cloning in the future. Finally, seven members want to allow research cloning and ban only "cloning to produce children."
On balance, this is good news for supporters of a real cloning ban. While the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a total ban a year ago, the Senate version – sponsored by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) – has been blocked by the Senate's Democratic leadership. A four-year moratorium would at least prevent researchers from proceeding with grossly unethical cloning experiments at present.
Another pleasant surprise is the report's clarity on what cloning is. Supporters of research cloning, appalled by broad public sentiment against the practice, have been blowing a lot of smoke to convince Congress that cloning isn't cloning. "Human cloning," they say, is the production of a live-born child – so we can prevent cloning by simply making sure that all cloned human embryos are killed before birth. Some, like Senator Orrin Hatch, have even suggested that perhaps humans produced by cloning would not be human beings at all.
The Council will have none of this. Whatever you call the procedure, it says, human cloning produces human embryos – who may then be placed in a womb for live birth, or in a Petri dish for destructive research. If you ban placing these embryos in a womb, as in the bill offered by Senators Hatch, Feinstein and others, our government will take the unprecedented step of allowing cloning and then mandating that all cloned humans be destroyed. Supporters of Hatch/Feinstein find no solace in this report.
Unfortunately, in one respect the report is unclear. It says all Council members favor a permanent ban on "cloning to produce children" – without really explaining how this can be done effectively without raising the grave moral problems of a Hatch/Feinstein approach.
A four-year ban on all human cloning would allow time for discussion of that serious issue, and stop irresponsible researchers from making national policy by presenting us with human clones as a fait accompli. That is a compromise that all but the most extreme cloning advocates can support.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)