Cloning Bill Bans Abortion Too?
By Kristen Philipkoski

2:00 a.m. May 30, 2002 PDT
Cloning and abortion -- separate issues altogether, right? Maybe not. There are those who believe that if cloning is outlawed, then abortion will be too.

A hotly debated bill that would make cloning illegal also protects a human embryo from the moment of conception, and therefore flies in the face of Roe v. Wade, some experts say.

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They accuse conservative politicians of trying to chisel away at abortion rights through the back door with the bill (SB790), sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas). It would outlaw reproductive cloning as well as so-called therapeutic cloning -- which some researchers hope will lead to cures for deadly diseases.

Others say that's a stretch, and those against the bill -- many of them scientists who want to be free to try therapeutic cloning -- are grasping for any means to thwart it.

"Why is the right-to-life movement saying this is the most important vote of this Congress?" said Sean Tildon, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "It's because if Brownback is enacted, you will have given more protection to clonal embryos than to sexually produced embryos, and that's incredibly powerful if you want to oppose abortion."

An identical bill, HR2505, was already passed in July 2001 by the House, so the Senate vote could essentially make it a law. Although no date on a Senate vote has been set, Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), who supports the bill, said it will occur in June.

One critic accuses President Bush, who supports the cloning bill, of trying to advance the anti-abortion movement. "President Bush advocates the unprecedented step of making this basic research a federal crime, not to prevent cloning, but because he needs to regain ground lost with the anti-abortion movement when he agreed to finance limited embryonic stem cell research," said Alta Charo, a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin. "Senator Brownback's agenda isn't cloning either; it's embryos research and abortion."

But Roe v. Wade, others say, is about a woman's right to have an abortion if she wants one. It doesn't say anything about what someone can do with an embryo in a petri dish. "The Supreme Court decision is predicated entirely on a right that the court placed on the woman," said Douglass Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. "The Brownback bill says you can't clone a human embryo -- the woman's nowhere in the picture. The cloning process occurs in the laboratory."

And Johnson's isn't a uniquely anti-abortion stance on cloning. "Roe is a constitutional law opinion; it can't be changed or modified by legislation," said George Annas, professor and chair of the Health Law Department at the Boston University School of Public Health. The most outspoken pro-choice groups: National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women, are not taking a position on the cloning bill. They wouldn't say why, but some say it's because they believe the cloning bill is not a threat to abortion rights.

Charo's theory is that pro-abortion groups don't want to prevent right-leaning politicians from advocating therapeutic cloning. "When the debate on SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer, the technical term for therapeutic cloning) began, groups associated with abortion rights did not want to make a vote on research into a vote on abortion, as it would limit the freedom of people like (Orrin) Hatch and (Strom) Thurmond to support research."

Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), an advocate of a woman's right to have an abortion, is a co-sponsor of the Brownback cloning bill. She doesn't believe the legislation can be linked with abortion. "I think it's far-fetched," said Lindsay Ellenbogen, Landrieu's press secretary. "(Therapeutic cloning) would allow the creation of life for the express purpose of destroying it, and that's something the senator can't support."

But abortion-rights activists like Charo worry when anyone identifies an embryo as a life. Senator Brownback himself said that's what the cloning bill boils down to in a recent CNN interview. "I think the central issue is the legal status of a young human," he said in the interview. "It's whether you would look at the clone, the embryo, whatever you want to call it -- is this a person, or is it a piece of property. It's one or the other."

Cloning could be the most bipartisan and broadly supported or contested issue ever to reach the Senate floor. Liberal women's health advocates find themselves on the same side of the issue as anti-abortion conservatives. However, that does not make them "strange bedfellows," some are quick to point out. "Unlike the conservatives, we support human embryonic stem cell research -- so we are not 'strange bedfellows,' we're not even in the same bedroom," Alexander Capron, professor of law and medicine at the University of Southern California, said in a statement. "I think it's clear that the anti-abortion people have made cloning one of the important things they're opposing," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for the Center for Genetics and Society. "But there are also a lot of pro-choice people, progressives and liberal scholars, and women's health people who are very concerned about embryonic cloning and what the social concerns may be, and their misgivings have nothing to do with the status of an embryo."

Many people who fall under this category support a ban on reproductive cloning, but while the Brownback bill would also outlaw therapeutic cloning, they support a moratorium instead. Capron and some liberal groups believe researchers should postpone therapeutic cloning because it would create a market for human eggs, and they say the drug that induces hyper-ovulation is dangerous.

Women who have used the drug, called Lupron, have complained of serious side effects and have launched websites logging their complaints, but the FDA says the drug is safe. "Long-term serious problems do occur and need to be better defined before any woman is asked to donate eggs solely for research purposes. It will take several years to do this research, at least," said Judy Norsigian, executive director and co-founder of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

Norsigian doesn't support the Brownback bill. Like Capron, she would prefer legislation that puts a temporary moratorium on therapeutic cloning until the risks to women and the viability of potential therapies can be determined. Alternatives to Brownback (S.1758, S.1893) which have not yet seen a vote in Congress, would raise another problem. They might run the risk of being unconstitutional because they criminalize the act of implanting a cloned embryo. "(That) really does violate a woman's right to do as she wishes with her body," said Stuart Newman, a member of the Council for Responsible Genetics and a cell biologist at New York Medical College, who is pro-choice. "By allowing the production of clonal embryos, those bills would protect society by restricting women's rights."

Johnson, of the National Right to Life Committee, agrees and also worries that implantation will be much harder to monitor than creating clonal embryos. And what happens if Congress passes a law outlawing the implantation of a clone, but an implanted clone is discovered after the fact? "That's where the Abortion Rights Action League should start to worry," Johnson said. "They wouldn't want to make her have an abortion, and we wouldn't either."

Annas said anti-abortion activists' failed attempts to outlaw so-called partial birth abortion (abortion of a late-stage fetus that could survive outside the womb) show that the Brownback bill would not affect abortion rights. "If the state can't protect a viable fetus against the health interests of the pregnant woman, there is no way this court will find it can protect an early embryo," Annas said.

Related Wired Links:

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