A new political conversation is almost certain to erupt following the announcement Wednesday that U.S. scientists have successfully cloned human embryos to make stem cells.
Remember Dolly, the sheep? She was the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell, which raised a slew of moral questions, fueling debates on the subjects of human cloning and abortion and on the legal implications of such complex scientific developments. Even Dr. Ian Wilmut, who led the team of scientists behind the birth of Dolly, described human cloning as "repugnant" and illegal.
Whether human cloning is "repugnant" is a matter of opinion. However, the legality of human cloning is worth exploring.
Debates on the subject of human cloning have produced little to no results in the U.S. legislatively. Human cloning, though closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is still legal in most of the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 15 states prohibit cloning for research purposes, reproductive purposes, or both.
So far, when the cloning debate did make it to Congress, it has ended in a deadlock. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, said that she hopes these new scientific developments will force Congress to implement concrete legislation on the subject.
"This development, if it turns out to be replicable, will mean that there will be cloned human embryos in labs around the country," she told NPR. "And we really need to make sure that no unscrupulous person would ever try to use those to produce a cloned human being."
As far as stem cell research is concerned, there is one federal law in place, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, that bars the use of federal funds for research that could destroy or harm a human embryo. But that bill, which was introduced in the mid-1990s, has been limited, circumvented, or expanded depending on the president in office.
President Clinton found that using federal funding to destroy embryos was unacceptable, but using private funds to do the same thing did not violate the amendment. The Bush administration allowed for federal funding to be used for stem cell research, but then did everything in its power to limit the cell lines available to researchers.
Then, upon President Obama's election in 2009, his administration expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, something which he said the American people think should be pursued.
"There are already 60 countries in the world that have laws on their books banning human reproductive cloning, " said Darnovsky. "And this prohibition is also in a number of international agreements."
But it seems international cloning policies are as varied and flexible as federal ones. Canada permits stem cell research, but bans reproductive and therapeutic cloning. In India, embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning are permitted, but reproductive cloning is banned. In Trinidad and Tobago, embryonic stem cell research and all cloning are banned. And the list goes on as such, depending on the country.
In 2005, the United Nations adopted a declaration on human cloning that called on governments to ban all forms of human cloning that are "incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life." Though the UN's declaration is a powerful statement, it is a nonbinding recommendation for participating countries. In 2001, the Council of Europe put in force a protocol that prohibits the cloning of human beings. And, even if the protocol is binding, it would only apply to the European countries included in the council.
The successful new research could help identify and cure illnesses and genetic disorders. Stem cells can develop into healthy human body tissue and replace the diseased tissue with healthy human cells. If the process can be replicated, it will become only the third known method to produce stem cells.
This is no small feat. The problem, however, is that the research involves destroying cloned human embryos. Rev. Tad Pacholczk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center said that the method uses "early human beings as repositories for obtaining desired cells." Pacholczk said that the process involves creating life to destroy it.
Dr. David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, acknowledged the accomplishments of the scientists who have successfully cloned human embryos. "This makes it imperative that we create an international legal ban on human cloning before any more research like this takes place," he said.
Rovner J. Cloning, Stem Cells Long Mired In Legislative Gridlock. NPR Online. 2013.
Darnovsky M. Research cloning development underscores the need for US to prohibit reproductive cloning. Press Statement. 2013.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Statement on Cloning. 2013.
National Conference of State Legislatures. Human Cloning Laws. 2013.