The Bush administration's first big decision on a bioethics issue, to support a complete ban on both public and private sector research involving human somatic cell nuclear transfer, is matched by a groundswell of support in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate ultimately may block the move, but the White House caught industry, patient groups and the science community off guard as they looked for the administration to come down with its decision on embryonic stem cell research.

The proposed ban would preclude the advancement of therapeutic cloning, which involves the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer to create cells that researchers hope to use in degenerative diseases. Although the approach would create an embryo that theoretically could be brought to term, so-called reproductive cloning, the therapeutic application would harvest the cells after a few days.

Although stem cell and therapeutic cloning technologies are distinct from a scientific perspective, the White House move reflects the success of anti-abortion activists who have tightly coupled therapeutic with reproductive cloning, and linked both to embryonic stem cell research, hoping to harness popular revulsion about eugenics and baby cloning to stigmatize and prohibit all medical research involving embryos.

The move also exploits political support for anti-cloning legislation that targets the private sector. In contrast, none of the current legislative efforts to restrict federal funding of stem cell research proposes extending the policy to the private sector.

Patient advocacy groups and the biotechnology industry probably stand a good chance of derailing a therapeutic cloning ban in the Senate, now led by Democrats. But a bruising political fight could play into the hands of the biotech opposition, who already are using the issue to argue that the industry is deaf to bioethics issues (see "Commentary", A8).

Taking a stand

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) last week said it opposed the White House move because therapeutic cloning represents a breakthrough in medical research that could have broad applications in the future, well beyond the small number of companies currently working to develop the technique, according to Michael Werner, who is BIO's bioethics counsel.