US House gives a resounding 'no' to human cloning

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The Independent Online

Science, politics and the purveyors of so-called ethics were still arguing yesterday after the US House of Representatives voted to ban human cloning – even if it was used for medical research into debilitating diseases.

The House voted late on Tuesday evening by 265-162 to make it illegal to create cloned human embryos. Earlier in the day, it had also thrown out a compromise measure that would have banned cloning for reproductive purposes but allowed it for research into diseases such as Alzheimer's – a process that has been called "therapeutic cloning".

President George Bush, who had supported the vote against any sort of human cloning, issued a statement welcoming the House's decision. He said: "The moral issues posed by human cloning are profound and have implications for today and for future generations.

"[The] overwhelming and bipartisan House action to prohibit human cloning is a strong ethical statement which I commend. We must advance the promise and cause of science, but must do so in a way that honours and respects life."

But the vote against cloning does not mean the debate is over. The whole issue runs parallel to that of embryonic stem cell research, for which Mr Bush is currently considering whether or not to permit federal funding.

Stem cells are extracted from human embryos, when the embyos are tiny clusters of just a few hundred cells. The work is strongly condemned by anti-abortionists because the embryos are destroyed by the removal of the stem cells – cells which scientists can theoretically use to grow into any of the human body's tissue.

However, some scientists say that, for the stem cells to work most effectively, the cells must be compatible with the patient. As a result, they argue, the most efficient way forward is to create embryos that contain the patient's own DNA, a technique known as therapeutic cloning – which was included in the proposed ban.

One company, the Massachusetts-based biotechnology firm, Advanced Cell Technology, has said it still intends to carry out therapeutic cloning experiments. Mike West, the company's chief executive told The New York Times, that he believed the debate in the House had been little more than "two hours of rampant misinformation".

He added: "It is disappointing that we are not having a more reasoned debate."

Other scientists are even more ambitious. Cloning an entire human by the end of the year is the stated goal of University of Kentucky professor Panayiotis Zavos, as well as Severino Antinori, an Italian professor who runs a fertility clinic in Rome.

But the firm opponents of cloning – who are voicing their opinions in a debate that has become increasingly emotional and decreasingly scientific – are currently winning the argument. RC Watts, a Republican from Oklahoma, 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."

Douglas Johnson, director of the National Right to Life pressure group, condemned companies such as Mr West's as "human embryo farms". He said: "The real agenda of the bio-tech industry is now revealed. Lethal research on the embryos already created for infertile couples is only a stepping stone to the bio-tech industry's plan to mass-produce human embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them."

Florida Republican Dave Weldon, who sponsored the bill, said "We're talking about crossing a threshold here."

The Senate has not yet debated the issue, although a companion bill to the one that went to the House has been put up. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle has said he is "opposed to the effort to clone under virtually any circumstances."

The issue is also being hotly contested in Europe. A Council of Europe convention prohibiting human reproductive cloning came into force in March and Prime Minister Tony Blair also wants to ban it. Current UK legislation permits the cloning of human cells for research, but forbids the cloned cells to survive longer than 14 days.