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ASIP Public Affairs

1997 Cloning Human Beings; NBAC Report; Richard Lynch

National Bioethics Advisory Commission Report on "Cloning Human Beings"

On February 23, 1997, the world learned that Ian Wilmut, a Scottish scientist, and colleagues at the Roslin Institute were about to announce the successful cloning of a sheep by a novel procedure. The nucleus from a fully differentiated somatic cell was transferred into an enucleated egg which subsequently developed into "Dolly;" an apparently normal lamb that contained the genetic material of only a single parent. This experiment was the first time that a fully developed animal had been produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer, since the earlier, classic studies with frogs, which had generated only tadpoles. Within days President Clinton declared a ban on federal funding of research aimed at cloning human beings, and charged the recently appointed, National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) to address within 90 days the ethical and legal issues surrounding the cloning of human beings. Previous columns of the Public Affairs Window have referred to the activities of the NBAC and the pivotal role they might play in the formulation of a national policy on the use of human tissues in genetic research. Consequently, their findings and recommendations were awaited with much interest by investigative pathologists and the scientific community in general. 

On June 6, the NBAC sent President Clinton their report and recommendations on the issue of human cloning. The 107 page document is divided into six chapters (plus appendices) and focuses exclusively on the implications of the use of nuclear transfer technology to create a human being. The report does not deal with any of the other issues ordinarily associated with reproduction such as other forms of research with human fetal tissue. The report does not deal with human tissue archives or the use of human tissues in genetic research. Individual chapters deal with the science involved in somatic cell nuclear transfer, the perspectives of the major religious philosophies with regard to human cloning, the ethical issues involved, the legal and constitutional issues involved, and a final section that contains the Commission's recommendations. 

The major conclusions and recommendations are: 

1) Because of insufficient information on the safety and effectiveness of this technology as applied to humans, and because of serious ethical concerns that require more widespread and careful public deliberation, it was concluded that for the present it is morally unacceptable for anyone in the public or private sector, whether in a research or clinical setting, to attempt to create a human being through somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning. The Commission, therefore, recommended that the federal moratorium continue and that the private sector be requested to comply voluntarily with the intent of the federal moratorium.

2) The Commission also recommended that Federal legislation be enacted to prohibit attempts to create a human being through somatic cell nuclear transfer, but that such legislation include a sunset clause to ensure that Congress reviews the issue after a specified period of time in order to determine whether the prohibition needs to be continued.

3) The Commission emphasized that any regulatory or legislative effort to implement the prohibition on human cloning by nuclear transfer technology should be carefully written so as not to interfere with other important areas of scientific research. The Commission felt that no new regulations were needed for the cloning of human DNA or human cell lines, nor for research on cloning animals by somatic cell nuclear transfer.

4) Because different ethical and religious traditions are divided on many of the moral issues involved in human cloning, the Commission encouraged widespread and ongoing deliberation on these issues to enable society to establish long-term policies regarding this powerful genetic technology.

Finally, the Commission was impressed by the difficulties caused by the lack of knowledge about genetics and the science involved in cloning revealed in the public and media responses to the cloning of Dolly the sheep, and for that reason recommended that the federal government actively encourage public education in this area of science. 

Overall, the Commission produced a public document that is interesting to read and which contains a lot of useful background information. In its Report, the Commission maintained a sharply circumscribed focus. In its recommendations, the Commission prescribed a careful, considerate initial approach to an issue that will continue to evolve and attract widespread attention. It will be important for the scientific community to continue to monitor developments as Congress responds to the report and recommendations of the NBAC.

Richard G. Lynch
Chair, ASIP Public Affairs Committee