WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration on Wednesday announced that it favors the most far-reaching of several competing bills to make human cloning a federal crime -- one that would outlaw not only the creation of cloned children but also the creation of cloned human embryos for research.
The administration's position, presented by Deputy Secretary for Health and Human Services Claude Allen to a congressional subcommittee, echoes that of many religious organizations and some ethicists who oppose the creation of human embryos for research.
In an unusual political crossover, it also has the support of some reproductive rights advocates who aren't opposed to human embryo research generally but fear that studies of human embryo clones in particular might hasten the arrival of the first cloned child and other worrisome human genetic manipulations.
A total ban on all human cloning research is opposed by other ethicists and many biomedical researchers, who believe studies of "stem cells" from five-day-old cloned human embryos offer the best chance for developing promising therapies for a variety of debilitating diseases. That constituency favors a different bill before Congress that resembles the current law in England -- one that allows scientists to create cloned human embryos for research as long as they don't transfer the embryos to a woman's womb to grow into babies.
The deep differences of opinion expressed by Allen and other witnesses during a 4 1/2-hour hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health revealed how difficult it may be for Congress to accomplish what had at first seemed a simple task: outlawing human cloning.
Everyone at Wednesday's hearing expressed support for that general principle. But a decision about how to implement such a ban is forcing legislators to consider not only the relative promise of various branches of experimental medicine but also such difficult ethical issues as the relative moral standing of early embryos and dying children.
"Human cloning rises to the most essential question of who we are and what we might become..." said subcommittee chairman Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla.
Allen's comments, vetted at length by the White House on Tuesday, marked the first clarification of what President Bush has meant by his previous, general assertions of opposition to human cloning. But they addressed just one aspect of an escalating national debate over human cloning and embryo cell research.
A divided Bush administration has been struggling for months over the related quandary of whether taxpayer dollars should support research efforts to turn cells from spare human embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics into organ-regenerating cures. Like the cloning debate, that controversy has given rise to unusual political bedfellows.
Several antiabortion members of Congress, including Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, who once led the charge against human fetal tissue research, have recently written to President Bush expressing their support for federal funding of human embryo cell research. Allen said the administration's decision on that issue, which doesn't require congressional approval, will be announced by the President at a future date.
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