Cloning, part one: The ballad of bill S.812

Two years before Obama’s executive order to rescind limits on stem cell research, Senator Orrin Hatch introduced bill S.812, the ‘Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2007’. Though unmistakably right-wing, the veteran Hatch is renowned for shrewdly wielding the political olive branch (he famously joined Bono’s well-heeled campaign for foreign aid debt forgiveness; recorded a hearty get well song for Ted Kennedy; and stood up fairly early in support of Barack Obama’s embattled attorney general nominee, Eric Holder). It was no surprise, then, that Hatch front-loaded bill S.812 with a title aimed squarely at what has become known as ‘purple state’ America. In admirably forthright wording, Hatch’s title evoked a sense of sober, considered balance: one could picture Justice herself, pausing for a moment’s due consideration before lifting a brightly glowing vial (stem cells) in one hand and discarding a soiled diaper (human cloning) with the other. In 2007, as now, American adults, eager for a therapeutic boon, tended to favor stem cell research; the same electorate, however, strongly opposed reproductive cloning — and, sadly, remained largely oblivious to key differences among stem cell lines that stood to greatly limit the pace and scope of their therapeutic payoff.

In particular, much of the public appeared unaware that some stem cells — the most developmentally versatile ones — are culled from young embryos (only those slated to be discarded), while others are collected later (usually after birth). Seen in this light, Hatch’s title, with its reference only to ‘stem cell research protection’, carried a deft ambiguity. In public rhetoric, Hatch and other Republican leaders often silently, but pointedly, exploit the distinction between embryonic and non-embryonic stem cells: their insistence that they are ‘pro-stem cell research’ is asterisked with a qualification — only grudgingly voiced to anyone beyond their religious-right ‘base’ — that they mean ‘adult’ stem cells only.

But the invocation of ‘stem cell research’ in the title of bill S.812 turned out to be even more strikingly devious, once one actually read beyond the title. In the body of the bill, the term ‘stem cell’ appeared exactly twice: once, in a recursive mention of the bill’s title, and once in a boilerplate section defining ‘unfertilized blastocyst‘ — which, as the definition rightly noted, is not a stem cell (nor is it a golf ball, as long as we’re keeping track…). Perhaps other references to stem cells were stripped from Hatch’s bill during last-minute backroom revision, with someone forgetting to change the title. Or maybe the reference to ‘stem cell research protection’ was to be read as an oblique threat, conditioning future Republican cooperation on any actually substantive stem cell research initiative to passage of S.812 (much as a mafioso might profess interest in the protection of kneecaps). In any case, the body of the bill did indeed mention ‘cloning’ (28 times); indeed, every substantive clause aimed squarely to ban attempts — therapeutic or otherwise — to make a human embryo by cloning. And in this sentiment, bill S.812 was far from new.

Since 1998, the Senate had already seen at least three major motions to ban human cloning, each mirrored by a sibling bill in the House of Representatives. Each time, the House bill passed, but enough senators balked at the proposed ban to give a reprieve to the apparently non-existent technique of reproductive cloning. The round of legislative fuss over reproductive technology that preceded Hatch’s 2007 bill culminated in the 2003 passage of a House bill banning cloning. Right around that time, a tellingly relevant nugget of news went largely overlooked here in the US. It was a spat that played out in the British press; the words were lively enough, but it lacked in visual fireworks, so was hardly tabloid grist, and hardly registered as a blip in the American press. Looking back, though, one might say that the affair laid bare a clash of ideas at the core of our society’s debate over technology itself.