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The news that U.S. scientists have successfully cloned a human embryo seems almost certain to rekindle a political fight that has raged, on and off, since the announcement of the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997.
"The issue of legislation on human cloning is about to get hot again," says Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School.
But it's a fight that has, over the past decade and a half, produced a lot of heat and light and not a lot of policy.
In fact, for all the arguing about the issue that's happened in Washington over the years, human cloning is still technically legal, at least in much of the country.
"There are already 60 countries in the world that have laws on their books banning human reproductive cloning, and this prohibition is also in a number of international agreements" says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, which is devoted to the responsible use of new genetic and reproductive technologies. "But in the U.S., we have not managed to put such a law on the books at the federal level."
At least 15 states ban cloning, either for reproductive purposes or research or, in come cases, both, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"What we saw the last time cloning was in the headlines was that the discussion really got mired in the abortion controversy," Darnovsky said.
The House passed bills banning all forms of cloning in 2001 and 2003; the Senate failed to act in both cases.
"All the other issues got completely swamped," she said. "And I really hope that doesn't happen this time."
But both the issues of cloning — for research and reproduction — and embryonic stem cell research have been mired in the abortion controversy from the start.
Stem Cell Research
About the only law that has been able to pass is language that gets added to the funding bill for the Department of Health and Human Services every year since the mid-1990s — the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment, named for its original House sponsors, Reps. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss. It bars the use of federal funds for research that could destroy or harm a human embryo.
The Clinton administration decided that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research using cell lines derived from embryos destroyed with private funds did not violate that law.
President Bush put that policy into force but severely limited the cell lines available to researchers.
"I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made," he said in a televised address to the nation.
Meanwhile, over the years Congress debated several bills to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, under specific ethical guidelines, as well as legislation to ban cloning intended to make a baby. None, however, was able to pass both the House and Senate and get the president's signature.
When he came into office in 2009, President Obama used his executive authority to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, while maintaining guidelines such as not paying women for their eggs.
"The majority of Americans, from across the political spectrum, and from all backgrounds and beliefs, have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research," he said.
But Congress remains deadlocked over the bioethical issues — which is not to say that there is no federal regulation.
Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that the Food and Drug Administration has, from the start, said it would closely regulate anything it deemed to be human cloning, whether reproductive or therapeutic.
"Once you start talking about putting many of the products of these cells into people, then you get into an area where the FDA is very interested," he said.
Meanwhile, Darnovsky of the Center on Genetics and Society says she hopes this new development might break the legislative logjam.
"This development, if it turns out to be replicable, will mean that there will be cloned human embryos in labs around the country," she said. "And we really need to make sure that no unscrupulous person would ever try to use those to produce a cloned human being."
Congress, however, has been unable to pass much of anything this year. It's unclear yet if this will rise to the level of must-pass.