WASHINGTON -- After an emotional debate on science, morality and the definition of life, the House has decided that the United States should allow no cloning of human cells, even for medical research.
Lawmakers rejected the overall question of human cloning Tuesday, 265-162, and said no by a 249-178 margin to cloning human cells in the search for possible cures to Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's and other fatal or disabling diseases.
House members saw their vote as a way to get ahead of scientific advances that forced Congress to grapple with the ethics of biotechnology.
"Some argue that cloning humans is the key that will unlock the door to the medical advancements of the 21st Century," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., said, "This House should not be giving the green light to mad scientists to tinker with the gift of life. Cloning is an insult to humanity. It is science gone crazy."
The Senate has not yet taken up the measure although a companion bill has been offered by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Tuesday he was "opposed to the effort to clone under virtually any circumstances."
Several groups of scientists have already begun work to clone and harvest human cells. Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts company, is working on a project that takes cells from human donors and then transfers their DNA into human egg cells, which can then grow into embryos.
The company's president Michael West has said that cloning technology can also be used to create cells customized to a patient, which could replace damaged or malfunctioning tissue without the risk of being rejected by the patient's immune system.
Cloning a human being by the end of the year is the stated goal of University of Kentucky professor Panayiotis Zavos and Severino Antinori, an Italian professor who runs a fertility clinic in Rome.
Reps. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., and Peter Deutsch, D-Fla., offered the alternative that would have allowed cloning at least for research. They said their alternative to permit cloning for research could point the way to cures for terrible diseases.
"Why would we condemn the world and future generations not to have this miracle?" Greenwood said. "Some would say once you put Mr. Greenwood's cheek cell in and it divides, it becomes a soul."
"It is preposterous we are allowing ourselves two hours of debate to decide if we should call to a screeching halt research," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. "We all agree that cloning of human beings is something we ought to outlaw. Let's not outlaw research with that."
House members agreed on the general principle that they do not want the human species cloned, the procedure that allowed scientists to create Dolly the sheep in 1997.
The disagreement was over whether scientists should be able to clone human embryos and then use them in their search for cures to diseases.
From the embryos, scientists could gather valuable stem cells -- the building blocks for all human tissue. President Bush is now deciding whether to permit federal funds for medical research on stem cells pulled from human embryos.
Bush, reiterating his opposition to cloning, praised the House's action. "Today's overwhelming and bipartisan House action to prohibit human cloning is a strong ethical statement, which I commend," Bush said in a prepared statement. "We must advance the promise and cause of science, but must do so in a way that honors and respects life."
The matter has been hotly contested because the most versatile stem cells are derived from embryos discarded at fertility clinics. Using them for research is opposed by abortion foes.
"There are ways for us to get these answers without messing with cloning," Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., supporting the total ban written by Reps. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich.
Opponents of all cloning argued that even a cloned embryo is a human being. They said Greenwood's bill would sanction their destruction.
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