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Curing, Not Cloning

By Gerald R. Ford
The Washington Post, Wednesday, June 5, 2002 ; Page A23

It is a troubling paradox of American politics: All too often the issues that most cry out for thoughtful, dispassionate consideration are reduced to sound bites. Further distorted in the name of ideology or partisanship, they can become oversimplified to the point of caricature. The public -- and public policy -- suffer, if only because there are some phrases virtually guaranteed to polarize any debate before it gets started.

Affirmative action. Reproductive rights. Gay rights. Now you can add cloning to the list. For many, the word conjures up sinister images of mad scientists laying claim to God-like powers. From there it is a short step toward a soulless state, wherein assembly-line man is robbed of his individuality by science run amok. It's hard to imagine a more frightening scenario.

But is it real? Growing up in Grand Rapids , Mich. , I was taught to put my faith in God, not government, and never to confuse the two. On the verge of my 89th birthday, I am not likely to change this view.

That's why I share the concerns of many about reproductive cloning, which in theory, at least, could lead to Dr. Frankenstein's vision of laboratory-manufactured humans. To me this is a perversion of science. Legislation has been introduced that would outlaw the cloning of human beings.

At the same time, this legislation would allow continued research into therapeutic cloning -- more precisely known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or nuclear transportation -- a very different branch of science that holds limitless potential to improve or extend life for 130 million Americans now suffering from some chronic or debilitating condition.

The anguish of these people is multiplied by the number of family members struggling to care for victims of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, spinal cord injury and a vast array of other ailments. For every Ronald Reagan, cruelly deprived of the knowledge of his pivotal place in our history, there are millions of elderly, and not so elderly, citizens who will never get their names in the history books, although they are similarly imprisoned in memory's darkened rooms. They deserve more than our sympathy. They deserve the finest treatment imaginable by the world's best scientists.

Unfortunately, they may not get it. In stark contrast to the Human Cloning Prohibition Act sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter, Dianne Feinstein, Orrin Hatch and Edward M. Kennedy, other members of Congress in both houses are trying to legislate an absolute ban on all cloning, therapeutic as well as reproductive.

Under terms of the Brownback-Landrieu bill in the Senate, and its House counterpart, H.R. 2505, promising regenerative therapies would be criminalized. This is not locking the lid on Pandora's box. It is slamming the door to lifesaving cures and treatments merely because they are new.

No fewer than 40 Nobel laureates have warned that such legislation "would foreclose the legitimate use of nuclear transplantation . . . and impede progress against some of the most debilitating diseases known to man."

Nor would it end there. Long in the vanguard of scientific discovery, American scientists and public policymakers have done much to shape sound scientific policies throughout the world. To walk away from the advances already achieved through therapeutic cloning is to surrender this leadership. It is to turn our back on the worldwide debate over harnessing, controlling and sharing these powerful new discoveries. It is to reject much of our history and still more of our future.

This is not an either/or question. It is a false choice that says we can have medical breakthroughs or we can safeguard human individuality -- but we can't do both. No one knows this better than the scientific researcher. The frontiers of knowledge are often lonely and sometimes uncivilized. Government has a mandate to police these regions and to guard against unethical or exploitative conduct, without suffocating the instinct for exploration and self-improvement that defines the human race.

Notwithstanding the efforts of some scientists, men are not to be confused with sheep. So what is it that sets us apart? Among other things, it is our capacity for faith -- complemented by our God-given curiosity, our dissatisfaction with limits and our stubborn refusal to acquiesce in early death or to suffer passively through debilitating illnesses thinly disguised as life.

Fortunately, we have recent precedent to help guide us through the forest of scientific and political uncertainty. During my presidency, similar questions were raised about research into recombinant DNA. After careful deliberation, safeguards were devised to ensure that this promising new line of inquiry would be closely monitored. It was a measured response to a sensitive issue, and it has resulted in advances that were unimaginable in the 1970s.

A quarter-century later, would anyone turn back the clock? Would anyone discard vaccines traceable to recombinant DNA research? Would they dismiss the promising new strategies to prevent or combat AIDS, diabetes and cancer?

Bills have already been put forward that ban human cloning and provide stiff penalties for it, while allowing continued research into the promise of nuclear transfer research. I call on Congress to pick up the mantle of leadership on this important issue and craft a compromise solution that works.

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