Rather, the council hopes to present a thoughtful discussion of the arguments on each side to help the president, members of Congress and other policy-makers understand the ramifications of each course of action. President Bush already has said he opposes all forms of cloning, and it's unclear what weight the council's deliberations will have on Congress. "The important thing is for people to have a full understanding of all the arguments," said Leon Kass, the council chairman and bioethicist at the University of Chicago.
Congress is poised to approve a ban on cloning for the purpose of making a baby, both because it is not safe scientifically and because of moral objections. At issue is whether to include cloning aimed at creating embryonic stem cells for research and treatment. A bill that passed the House last year included all cloning, but in the Senate, there is considerable opposition to a total ban.
Council members also are opposed to reproductive cloning, though they have yet to articulate whether their objections are solely practical or also moral, or what the precise moral objections are. At the conclusion of a two-day meeting Thursday, there was even less agreement on therapeutic cloning, in which a cloned embryo is created for research or medical treatments and destroyed before ever developing into a fetus. Researchers hope to create embryonic stem cells that could develop into compatible organs and replace such things as a patient's ailing hearts, livers and kidneys.
Kass asked council members to divorce their thinking from the divisive issue of abortion, but the question of when life begins underscored the entire discussion. The council considered at length whether a human embryo deserves the same rights and protections that society affords people, whether it is a collection of cells with no rights at all, or whether it is something in between.
Robert George, a philosopher at Princeton University, argued that using an embryo for research means society will have judged a developing human as an object available for use. "The blastocyst (a ball of cells formed a few days after conception) is a human being at a certain stage of development. It is a human being," he said.
The unique nature of each embryo ought to afford it the highest respect society has to offer, said Charles Krauthammer, a Washington Post columnist and the only nonacademic on the council. But even if the embryo doesn't deserve full human respect, he said, it should be afforded equal rights to prevent an ethical "slippery slope" by which more fully developed fetuses and even infants might lose their rights, too.
Some council members were comfortable with the idea that a human embryo is something in between a thing and a person - deserving of respect but not as much as society affords humans. "It's a mistake to claim respect is all or nothing, on or off," said Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard University. He said it makes sense that a days-old embryo might be used for "only certain uses, only worthy ends," such as the preservation of life or curing of disease.
One council member went further, suggesting that the cells created through cloning for research are fundamentally different than embryos created for reproduction. "I object to the use of the term embryo," said Dr. Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University. "This is something different."
For Michael Gazzaniga, head of Dartmouth College's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, an embryo is a potential human, not a human itself. He compared destroying an embryo to a fire at a Home Depot that has supplies to build 30 houses. "The headline isn't '30 houses burn down,"' he said. "It's 'Home Depot burns down."