Letter to Congress on the Weldon/Stupak Human Cloning Prohibition Act

July 31, 2001

Dear Member of Congress:

This year Congress may face several decisions that could help forge, in the words of Pope John Paul II, "the path to a truly humane future, in which man remains the master, not the product, of his technology" (Address to President Bush at Castel Gandolfo, July 23).  The first and most immediately urgent of these decisions regards human cloning.

The Weldon/Stupak Human Cloning Prohibition Act, approved 18-to-11 by the House Judiciary Committee, is poised for a vote by the full House.  It should be approved without delay.  Some researchers have already announced that they are trying to produce a live-born child by cloning -- despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that about 99% of new humans created by this method would die before birth, and the rare survivor would suffer from massive medical problems.  The Weldon/Stupak bill addresses this looming tragedy at its source, by banning the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer to create a new organism of the human species.

This bill is carefully crafted to address only this specific problem.  It has no effect on in vitro fertilization or any other reproductive technology in current use, but deals only with cases of asexual reproduction which do not involve fertilization of egg by sperm.  The bill explicitly exempts any use of cloning technology to produce animals, plants, DNA, tissues, or cells other than human embryos (including stem cells which are not themselves human embryos). 

Proponents of cloning nonetheless argue that this bill somehow interferes with a procedure that is essential to stem cell research.  Until now, of course, these same groups were insisting that embryonic stem cell research could be fully pursued using only "excess" embryos created by in vitro fertilization that "will be discarded anyway."  Now they say that mass production and destruction of cloned embryos to provide genetically matched stem cells will be needed to take stem cell research from the laboratory into the clinic.

While the cloning debate is now forcing such groups to admit that their earlier statements may not be true, their new claim is also open to serious question.  The National Institutes of Health's new report on the science of stem cells cites cloning as one way to prevent rejection of embryonic stem cells as foreign tissue, but cites other approaches as well -- and expresses great uncertainty as to whether these cells will provoke a significant immune reaction even without such manipulations (NIH, Stem Cells: Scientific Progress and Future Research Directions, June 2001, pp. 17, 63). 

The scientific journal Nature reported recently that the idea of using embryo cloning to provide tailor-made stem cells is "falling from favour," that "many experts do not now expect therapeutic cloning to have a large clinical impact."  Even James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, a leading advocate of embryonic stem cell research, says this approach would be "astronomically expensive."  In light of the enormous wastefulness of the cloning process and the damage it does to gene expression, says the author, "many researchers have come to doubt whether therapeutic cloning will ever be efficient enough to be commercially viable" even aside from the grave moral issues involved.  The Nature article further notes that adult stem cell research has a distinct advantage in this regard, for "if a patient's own stem cells could be used to grow replacement tissues, there would be no need to worry about rejection" (P. Aldhous, "Can they rebuild us?", Nature, 5 April 2001, pp. 622-5).

Despite the growing scientific consensus on this point, some biotechnology companies still favor human cloning for research purposes, and they therefore support a substitute bill by Congressman Greenwood that would provide federal approval for the creation and destruction of cloned human embryos.  Even as a bulwark against so-called "reproductive" cloning, however, the Greenwood bill is completely ineffectual.  It explicitly authorizes and even licenses laboratories to pursue research designed to refine the cloning process, and in ten years automatically drops all legal barriers to the use of cloned embryos to initiate a pregnancy.  In the meantime the Greenwood proposal even bars states from enacting any genuine ban on human cloning within their own jurisdictions.

The framers of the Weldon/Stupak bill understand that once a society allows experimental human cloning in the laboratory, attempts to initiate pregnancies and to create live-born children by cloning are inevitable.  Far from offering a substitute path toward a ban on cloning, the Greenwood proposal is an object lesson showing that this judgment by Congressmen Weldon and Stupak was exactly right.  In short, theirs is the only legislation against human cloning before the House.  I therefore urge you to defeat the Greenwood substitute and approve the Weldon/Stupak ban on human cloning without delay.


Rev. Msgr. William P. Fay, Ph.D.
General Secretary
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops