House members, by a 265-to-162 vote, backed a bill drafted by Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., that makes it a crime punishable by a $1 million fine and up to 10 years in jail to transfer the nucleus of an ordinary human cell into an unfertilized human egg whose own nucleus had already been removed.
This technique, known scientifically as nuclear transfer, is the process used to clone Dolly the sheep.
Two hundred Republicans, 63 Democrats and two independents voted for Weldon's bill, which is supported by President Bush, while 143 Democrats and 19 Republicans voted against it. Earlier in the day, the lawmakers voted 249 to 178 to reject a narrower substitute bill from Reps. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., and Peter Deutsch, D-Fla. That bill would have banned the cloning of human babies but would have permitted nuclear transfer in the course of researching whether human stem cells can be used to treat diseases like diabetes or Alzheimer's.
Backers of the successful bill praised the final decision, which was prompted by instances in which fertility doctors have recruited women to act as surrogate mothers for the first cloned human baby. "This House should not be giving the green light to mad scientists to tinker with the gift of life," said Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla.
But Bay Area Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., co-sponsors of the failed effort to separate reproductive cloning from the stem cell debate, reacted with disappointment and alarm. "This is not good news for the families of people with degenerative diseases or people who are in wheelchairs," Lofgren said.
Eshoo said House Republicans purposely confused reproductive cloning with the separate debate over stem cells. Stem cells are taken from human embryos in their first 10 days. Many scientists believe stem cells could be grown into heart cells, liver cells or other tissues. Before these cells could be used as transplants, however, scientists would have to make these replacement cells a genetic match for the patient. The best way to do this is by nuclear transfer, which the House voted to criminalize. "That's the most shocking thing to me, making science a crime," Eshoo said. "My prediction is the Senate will take a different view."
One of the political unknowns is how yesterday's House vote will affect Bush's separate deliberations over whether the federal government should fund stem cell research. Feldbaum said the House vote to ban therapeutic cloning--which has the greatest bearing on Bush's decision--was too narrow to send a signal that the momentum had shifted against this research, which is opposed by the Catholic Church, religious fundamentalists and some ethicists. But Stanford law professor Hank Greely, an expert on human cloning law, said the House vote to ban all cloning was "higher than I would have thought."
Meanwhile, despite the widespread scientific opposition to reproductive cloning, the possibility exists that Congress could fail to enact any law because the issue has become entwined with the more hotly debated question of stem cell research.
Leading scientists have opposed reproductive cloning based on experiences with Dolly and other animal clones that suggest a high rate of miscarriages, birth defects and other ailments. Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at San Francisco State University who favors stem cell research and the more-limited therapeutic cloning, noted that the House vote went further than an action by the British Parliament months ago. Parliament voted to ban reproductive cloning--a position she endorses--while allowing therapeutic cloning for stem cell research.
The British decision prompted Roger Pedersen, a University of California at San Francisco stem cell researcher, to say he would move to the United Kingdom to continue his work. Pedersen declined to comment on the House vote.
Mark Eibert, an attorney in Half Moon Bay, Calif., who favors human cloning, said the House-passed bill was so extreme it increased the odds Congress would do nothing and thus leave reproductive cloning legal. "If you're infertile, reproductive cloning is therapeutic," said Eibert, who has testified in Congress on behalf of the 900,000 infertile Californians and 12 million Americans he thinks would benefit from reproductive cloning.