Cloning politics

November 05, 2003

FIVE YEARS ago this week, a pair of scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the University of Wisconsin announced a discovery they thought might ignite a national research effort like the one that put a man on the moon.

The colonies of embryonic stem cells they produced held such breathtaking potential to cure a virtually limitless array of human ailments - from Parkinson's to spinal injuries - that Dr. John Gearhart, the Hopkins biologist, envisioned a race to find those cures as quickly as possible.

Instead, the United States is leading an international campaign to ban such experimentation. After hobbling U.S. scientists by limiting their access to federal funds, the Bush administration is now working through the United Nations to persuade the rest of the world to prohibit such research.

Politics, religion and ethics notwithstanding, though, this genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Science marches on. The United States could best protect the sanctity of human life - and help guard against a horror show of unintended consequences - by leading the charge for an international ban on cloning people instead of holding out for the unobtainable goal of halting medical research on embryonic stem cells.

President Bush eloquently described the "difficult moral intersection" posed by creating human embryos for the purpose of extracting stem cells that can potentially replace any form of damaged tissue. It juxtaposes, he said, "the need to protect life itself in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages."

Mr. Bush tried to strike that balance two years ago by allowing federal research funds to be used only on stem cell lines existing at that time, none newly created. But the supply is inadequate, and the policy has largely kept American scientists on the sidelines of research under way elsewhere in the world.

Worse, it has prevented the United States from taking part in what should be an international effort both to strictly regulate stem cell research and to prevent the nightmares that could result from human cloning.

Britain, China, Japan, Singapore and other nations are making enormous investments in stem cell research that promise medical advancements and lucrative financial returns as well. International efforts to set licensing standards are also under way. But the United States is not involved.

Some U.N. strategists preparing for a meeting on the issue tomorrow advise delaying any action until the world body reaches a consensus and can pass a resolution with overwhelming support. Far preferable to a split decision or to taking a pass would be a U.S.-led drive to condemn the cloning of human beings as a medically unsafe and criminal act, a point on which U.N. members broadly agree.

Instead of hiding its head in the sand, the United States should be helping to shape the new world of scientific discovery that inevitably lies ahead.

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