President Proposes Human Cloning Ban

President Clinton announced today that he will send Congress a bill that would outlaw the cloning of humans. Clinton made the announcement immediately after he received a report from his National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) urging that "Federal legislation should be enacted to prohibit anyone from attempting, whether in a research or clinical setting, to create a child through somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning." While such a ban would cover both public and private labs, it apparently would not limit biomedical research now under way.

The 18-member NBAC began studying the ethical issues surrounding human cloning in March, shortly after Ian Wilmut of the Joslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, announced that he had cloned the DNA of an adult sheep to create the now-famous lamb, "Dolly." This triggered an explosion of concern about the cloning of humans. Congress began to talk about new laws, and Clinton ordered a moratorium on the use of federal funds for the cloning of humans and asked NBAC to report back in 90 days with recommendations.

NBAC did not base its policy recommendations on any particular religious or moral view of cloning, because no single set of values is universally accepted. Instead, it focuses on safety. Noting that it took Wilmut 277 attempts to clone a single healthy lamb, the report concludes that an attempt to clone a child would be "a premature experiment" with "unacceptable risks." For instance, it might do psychological harm to infertile couples trying the technique. That alone, the report says, justifies a prohibition on cloning human beings at the moment.

Clinton agreed, declaring that human cloning "has the potential to threaten the sacred family bonds at the very core of our ideals and our society." In a seeming afterthought, he noted that "there is nothing inherently immoral or wrong with these new techniques" if they are not used to clone humans, because they "hold the promise of revolutionary new medical treatments and lifesaving cures."

These messages both reassured and disquieted biomedical researchers. Roger Pedersen, a developmental biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, was relieved that NBAC did not seek "legislative control" over all cloning experiments. But he deplores what he views as an "unprecedented proposal to criminalize an area of research." He worries that once the precedent of outlawing research has been set, it might lead legislators to restrict other research embroiled in controversy.