Senator Jim Talent of Missouri says that he wants to ban all forms of cloning, including cloning to produce human embryos for biomedical research. He also says he wants to promote an alternative type of research called Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT). On Friday, he set back both goals.
The goal of ANT is to get the equivalent of embryonic stem cells without actually creating (and then killing) a human embryo. One method of ANT would, for example, create a biological entity that could be used to produce pluripotent stem cells, the same type of stem cells sought by cloners. But that entity would not be an embryo. It would not even be an organism. It would lack the ability to organize itself and to direct its own development the way an embryo can.
Pro-life supporters of ANT believe that it could yield the same benefits as cloning but without the moral costs of commodifying or killing living human beings. They typically want both to encourage ANT and to ban human cloning.
Senator Talent took a different tack Friday. In a speech, he warned that the bill to ban human cloning, sponsored by Senators Sam Brownback and Mary Landrieu, was written overbroadly and could ban ANT. He withdrew his support for the bill, of which he had been a co-sponsor.
Talent’s interpretation of the Brownback bill is far-fetched. The bill defines human cloning (in relevant part) as the production of “a living organism (at any stage of development) that is genetically virtually identical to an existing or previously existing human organism.” Talent points out that ANT would produce a biological artifact that was “genetically virtually identical to an existing organism.” But it wouldn’t produce “a living organism,” which is also part of the definition. He knows that ANT wouldn’t produce a living organism; he says so himself. It follows that the bill doesn’t ban ANT.
And the bill includes additional language that should alleviate any lingering concern. “Nothing in this [bill] restricts areas of scientific research not specifically prohibited by this [bill], including research in the use of nuclear transfer or other cloning techniques to produce molecules, DNA, cells other than human embryos, tissues, organs, plants, or animals other than humans.”
Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University and a member of the president’s council on bioethics, has been a prominent supporter of ANT. He says that he “stand[s] 100 percent behind the Brownback bill. . . . There is no conflict between the Brownback bill and ANT.” Senator Tom Coburn also backs both the Brownback bill and his own bill to provide funding for ANT.
Senator Talent says that if his concern about the bill’s overbroad language had been the only issue, he might have settled for pressing for changes to that language. He says that his decision was also motivated by frustration at the “stalemate” over cloning. Brownback-Landrieu seeks to ban cloning. A rival bill sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch and Dianne Feinstein would allow cloning for research purposes but prohibit the implantation of a cloned embryo to produce a baby. Congress has not passed either. “We’re in a completely unregulated world,” he tells National Review Online.
Talent tells NRO that he would break the stalemate by providing substantial funding for universities to “develop and perfect” ANT. A ban on cloning cannot succeed on its own, he says, but has to be coupled with funding for alternative methods. “Given the existence of this [ANT] research, there is no reason to go with the Feinstein-Hatch approach.”
That’s all well and good. But at the end of the day, Talent is trying to argue that he is advancing the cause of banning human cloning. . . by withdrawing his support for a bill that bans human cloning? What he is saying doesn’t make any sense.
Senator Talent’s move may even hurt the cause of ANT. Not all pro-lifers have supported it. Some of them have been suspicious that talking up ANT plays into the hands of the cloners. Talent’s speech will strengthen those suspicions, and thus make ANT more controversial on the Right.
The senator has always struck me as an earnest and well-intentioned man, and I’m sure he believes what he says in favor of his approach. But the political pressures for him to tamp down his opposition to human cloning cannot have escaped his attention. The Stowers Institute and its allies in Missouri are spending a lot of money this fall to pass a (deceptively worded) ballot initiative to legalize human cloning. Those allies include the state’s Republican governor. Talent is running for re-election this fall, and the race is expected to be one of the tightest in the country.
He doubtless thinks that he has found a way to solve a political problem for himself while also advancing his principles. I wish I could believe that he has.
–Ramesh Ponnuru, an NR senior editor, is at work on a book about the sanctity of life and American politics.