The House Votes on Cloning: Good News! Bad News!

Last Wednesday the House held a surprise vote on Rep. DeGette’s (D-Colorado) Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2007. The bill that would prohibit reproductive, but not therapeutic cloning was defeated by only nine votes. That same morning, the White House issued a “Statement of Administrative Policy” declaring “The President unequivocally opposes all forms of human cloning” and that the President would veto any bill that allows even therapeutic cloning. The good news is that the House bill did not pass. The bad news is that Congress, the President, and a dozen or so states would like to ban at least some forms of cloning.

The Act would have prohibited human cloning which it defines as “the implantation of the product of human somatic cell nuclear transfer technology into a uterus or the functional equivalent of a uterus.” It would have prohibited both actual human cloning and any “attempt to perform” human cloning. The bill did not define “equivalent of a uterus” or what would constitute and “attempt” to perform human cloning. Vagueness is a problem in all efforts to ban cloning because of the possible chilling effects such prohibitions can have on scientific advancements. Ten years in prison or a ten million dollar fine would be a harsh penalty to pay for a misunderstanding of scientific motives.

Science is no longer something done in the basement of a mad scientist’s mansion. Scientific inquiry requires teams of researchers with universities or research institutions to back them. It is possible to conceive of one mad scientist or even one mad scientist who convinces another to go along, but a whole team of mad scientists? That is not only highly unlikely, but nearly impossible. The only way something that horrific could conceivably happen is if government sponsored a highly top secret project. No one in the private sector could command that amount of secrecy without the public finding out what was going on.

This isn’t the first time there have been efforts to ban new reproductive technologies for fear of mad scientist and monster babies. There were cries to ban in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the 1970s, but Congress never passed any such laws, and the research proceeded without the creation of any “monster babies,” only millions of happy infertile couples who now have children – children, who by most estimates, have fewer birth defects than children born without the assistance of reproductive technologies.

Cloning is an integral part of several potential medical advances. It is essential to embryonic stem cell therapies, potential infertility therapies, and possible genetic therapies. The best course of action for the federal government is no action at all. If we are lucky, Congress and the President will remain at loggerheads long enough for cloning to continue to play its part in the advancement of science. But, what might happen at the state level is another story.