American feminists and women's health activists are debating on the difficult issue of human cloning and stem cell research. Human cloning involves creating embryos with the intent of implanting them in women to produce children. In therapeutic cloning on the other hand, genetic material from a body cell is inserted into an egg cell, replacing the nucleus. As the cell begins to divide, scientists believe stem cells can be extracted and grown into tissue or organs. Thus, a kind of 'regenerative medicine' gives people access to therapies derived from their own cells.
Last year, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in the US Congress passed a bill banning all human cloning, a measure President Bush supports. The bill, introduced by Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who has been called "the torchbearer of the Christian Right", called for a total ban on human cloning, which would also preclude cloning embryonic stem cells for research purposes, or 'therapeutic cloning'.
In May 2002, the Senate countered with its own legislation designed to foster scientific research. Their "Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2002" would prohibit human reproductive cloning by imposing significant criminal and civil penalties in the form of fines (at least $1 million) and up to ten years in prison. The bill also applies Federal ethical regulations on human subject research and outlaws the transfer of cloned embryos to a woman's uterus or to any artificial womb.
However, the Senate bill does allow for therapeutic cloning, known as 'nuclear transplantation', for research on therapies that could cure several serious and life-threatening diseases. Among these are several which affect women disproportionately or exclusively, such as breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis and autoimmune diseases.
While conservative senator Orrin Hatch came out in favor of the Senate bill, one liberal woman senator, Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, has backed the Brownback ban on cloning. She joins a number of pro-choice women legislators in the House of Representatives who also support the bill. Landrieu says she supports a total ban on human cloning in part because she fears the process of therapeutic cloning would lead to what she has called "the commodification of women's bodies". She worries that the demand for women's eggs could create "an unseemly market" in which low-income women would harvest and sell their eggs for financial gain.
On the other hand, three leading organizations promoting women's health sent a letter to Senator Ted Kennedy, Democrat from Massachusetts and one of the proponents of the Senate bill. They say, "Women's health advocates have worked for years to overcome researchers' past neglect of women's
health. In our pursuit of better information, treatment, and cures for women and their families, we must ensure that the newest and most promising techniques are available to those same researchers."
The Society for Women's Health Research, a non-profit group, agrees that therapeutic cloning should be allowed. While supporting a ban on the cloning of a human being, the Society believes that the ban should not deter important advancements in scientific technology. "The Society is concerned that a ban on nuclear transplantation might thwart research directed at finding cures and treatments for diseases and disabilities which solely, predominantly or differently affect women," says their president, Phyllis Greenberger.
Last year Greenberger testified before the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. "The potential of therapeutic cloning for treating, and perhaps curing, a variety of debilitating diseases demands that the scientific community be allowed to continue this promising work."
Other organizations like the universally respected Boston Women's Health Book Collective, take a more cautious approach. In June 2002, numerous international organizations joined the Collective in issuing a statement on human cloning in which they called on Congress to pass a strong, effective ban on using human cloning to create a human being.
"There is no way that human cloning could be developed without unethical mass experimentation on women and children," they said. "Further, cloning advocates are seeking to appropriate the language of reproductive rights and freedom of choice to support their case. This is a travesty and needs to be challenged." At the same time, the statement calls for a five-year moratorium on the use of cloning to create human embryos for research purposes.
While supporting research that would help to determine whether stem cells have therapeutic effects, they point out that those adult stem cells, umbilical cord stem cells, and embryonic stem cells not derived from embryos created for research can be used. "The creation of cloned human embryos, which would increase the difficulty of enforcing a ban on the production of genetic duplicate humans, is unnecessary for these investigations."
In her testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Judy Norsigian, Executive Director of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective said, "Those of us who are pro-choice want to emphasize that our position is quite different from those who oppose ALL embryonic stem cell research. Many of us support for example, obtaining stem cells from embryos in IVF clinics that would otherwise be destroyed. Our objections pertain to stem cells derived from embryo cloning." Norsigian was clearly making a necessary distinction between women's health and reproductive rights activists and those on the extreme right who would ban all stem cell research on the basis of religious beliefs and anti-abortion platforms.
Like those who feel they cannot wholeheartedly endorse stem cell research if cells are obtained from embryo cloning, Norsigian and the more than 100 others who signed the June 2002 position statement, believe that cloning technology poses "vastly greater risks than any other currently available reproductive technologies."
They say it is highly likely that "experiments on human embryo cloning would inevitably lead to unacceptable human genetic manipulation and pose a threat to many basic human rights." Further, the media has focused on the therapeutic potential of stem cell research while neglecting the technology's dependence on thousands, perhaps millions, of women who must undergo the substantial health risks associated with harvesting their eggs.
There is, they point out, no long-term safety data on the super-ovulating drugs that women must take in order to provide the eggs for embryo cloning. They also fear that "women with limited financial resources will be the primary providers of human eggs to enterprises that offer what appear to be
Others like Marcy Darnovsky and Lisa Handwerker, both scientists and women's health activists, sound even stronger alarms. Darnovsky talks of 'consumer eugenics' and 'designer children' in a soon to be published paper - 'Human Germline Manipulation and Cloning as Women's Issues'. In a presentation before The Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies in February 2001, Handwerker worried that women will bear the physical, psychological, moral, economic, political and legal burdens of these new technologies and any negative consequences they may bear.
She concluded that "where women draw the lines between acceptable and unacceptable practices will be influenced, in part, by our multiple identities including whether or not we are rich, poor, rural, urban, Jewish, women of color, multi-ethnic, religious or non-religious, pre or post-menopausal, young, midlife, old, fertile and/or infertile. And finally, women's decisions will be influenced by our political predilections, including our feminist leanings." To the political far right, it may simply be a question of who gets to "play God".
But as Judith Lichtman, President of the National Partnership for Women and Families says, "There is far too much at stake for Congress to set policy based on scare tactics and ideological warfare." If approved, "therapeutic cloning research should be done only under the highest ethical standards,
with stronger informed consent requirements, measures to protect women from exploitation, and a prohibition of undue financial inducements to donate eggs."
Curiously, the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, and Planned Parenthood - the country's most prominent reproductive rights groups - have remained neutral on this issue. Perhaps their silence speaks volumes to those who have already thrown their hats into the arena.