WASHINGTON, D.C.--Legislators clashed over whether Congress should restrict cloning at a hearing here today held by the Senate subcommittee on public health and safety. At one extreme, Senators Christopher Bond (R-MO) and Dan Coats (R-IN) urged Congress to flatly outlaw human cloning. At the opposite pole, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) gave an impassioned defense of basic research--even embracing the cloning of humans.
The star witness was Ian Wilmut, the biologist from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, now famous for cloning an adult sheep. Wilmut said that he saw "no good reason" to clone a human, suggesting it made sense to create "some legal framework" to prevent this from being done. But he strongly supported research on mammalian cloning and on the cloning of human cells as a way of developing new medical therapies. Others--such as Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health--endorsed this cautious view.
Bond spoke for the prohibitionists. He said that when he heard about the sheep cloning earlier this month, "I immediately introduced legislation to prohibit permanently the use of federal funds for human cloning research. I intend to make sure that human cloning stays within the realm of science fiction. ... This type of research on human is morally reprehensible."
This prompted a strong response from Harkin, who said Congress should do nothing to limit cloning. "We don't know what this will lead to," Harkin said. "That's the beauty of basic research." He then challenged those who he says argue that cloning is "demeaning" to humans. "I think the attempt to limit human knowledge is demeaning," Harkin said. "To raise unfounded fears among the public is demeaning to human nature. I think it's human nature to ask 'How?' and 'Why?' and 'What if?' " Congress should protect people from the harsh effects of new discoveries, Harkin added. "But I don't think it is legitimate to put limits on [scientific] inquiry. What nonsense! What utter nonsense, to hold up our hands and say 'Stop!' " Harkin predicted that "human cloning will take place ... in my lifetime." And, he said, "I will welcome it."