The President's Council on Bioethics was itself divided on what course Congress should take, but neither of two recommendations put forward supports the permanent ban favored by Bush and approved by the House last year.
The idea, not yet tried in humans, is to create a cloned embryo and then extract its stem cells, which may be developed into replacement tissue and organs for patients sick with a host of incurable diseases. A cloned embryo might overcome tissue rejection problems, researchers hope. Opponents say it's wrong to create a human embryo - a new life - and then destroy it; supporters say it's more important to save existing lives through medical advances.
A slim majority - 10 of 18 members - favored a four-year moratorium on research cloning to allow for further public debate. Seven members argued that scientists should be allowed to move ahead under strict government regulations. One member who failed to attend most meetings took no position. "The council, reflecting the differences of opinion in American society, is divided regarding the ethics of research involving cloned embryos,'' the report said.
A divided report had been expected. In February, the council's chairman, Leon Kass, said opinions were so wide-ranging that he was abandoning hope of finding consensus. Bush's position was announced before the council began, and several members said their report belies those who said Bush was stacking the panel with people who agreed with him. "This report will put that charge to rest,'' said Michael J. Sendel, a government professor at Harvard University who opposed the moratorium.
Members agreed that cloning for reproductive purposes should be banned outright, for both practical and ethical reasons. In this procedure, a cell from one person would be used to create a second person with the same genetic code - like an identical twin born much later. Scientists say the procedure would be extraordinarily dangerous because any baby produced would likely die or have severe deformities. Nonetheless, at least two scientists, including one in Kentucky, say they are trying to produce a cloned baby.
Members of Congress also uniformly want to ban reproductive cloning; it's cloning for medical research that has them divided. In the Senate, where the cloning debate on competing proposals is on hold, lawmakers on opposing sides of the issue seized on elements of the report supporting their views and rejected the others. "It's significant that even the president's hand-picked panel of advisers rejected an outright ban on this promising medical research," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a cloning supporter.
Sen. Sam Brownback, a leading cloning opponent, emphasized the support for the moratorium. "A temporary ban would give the country an important opportunity to further debate the issue of human cloning along with its ultimate impact upon humanity,'' said Brownback, R-Kan. Last month, he said he would support a two-year moratorium, conceding he lacks the votes for a total ban.
Kass, a University of Chicago bioethicist, said he hoped the report would help people consider the issues more clearly. And he noted that neither proposal suggested by the council is being considered in the Senate.
Over six months of meetings, council members could not agree on the central issue: the moral value of a human embryo compared with the promise of science to develop treatments for disease. While Kass repeatedly said the council's deliberations had little to do with the issue of abortion, the question of when life begins underscored the entire ethical debate.
Like Bush, seven of the 18 members favored a ban: "We believe it is morally wrong to exploit and destroy developing human life, even for good reasons," they wrote. But they compromised, joining with three others who wanted a moratorium, to form the majority position. The four years for the ban was a compromise position, Kass said.
The seven members in the minority argued that a days-old human embryo does not deserve the same protections afforded a human being and the moral objections to the research are outweighed by the good that could come from it. "This research could provide relief to millions of Americans," they wrote. .