Failure to Pass Federal Cloning legislation, 1997-2003

There are no United States federal statutes against cloning. Congress failed to pass legislation in the 1997-98 session. In 2001 the House of Representatives passed a bill to ban both reproductive and research cloning, which President Bush indicated he would sign. The Senate tabled the legislation and a vote was never taken.

Failure to Pass Federal Cloning Legislation, 1997-1998

In February 1997, one month after the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced that they had cloned a sheep, President Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting the use of federal funds for human cloning. This provision is still in effect but has no bearing on privately funded research and thus is largely symbolic.

In February 1998 a bill calling for a ban on human reproductive cloning was introduced by Democratic Senators Feinstein (CA) and Kennedy (MA). A competing bill, which would have banned both human reproductive cloning and the creation of clonal embryos, was introduced by Republican Senators Bond (MO), Frist (TN) and Lott (MI). The Democratic bill was supported by the biotechnology industry and biomedical research community, and the Republican bill by anti-abortion groups and religious conservatives. No other constituencies played a visible role in the lobbying.

One week after its introduction the Bond-Frist-Lott bill was blocked by a filibuster, with a vote of 42 to 54 failing to end debate. All 42 votes to end debate came from antiabortion Republicans. No attempt was made subsequently to secure passage of the Democratic bill.

Failure to Pass Federal Cloning Legislation, 2001-2003

In December 2000 and January 2001, two separate teams of scientists announced their intentions to begin attempts to clone human beings, sparking a second effort by US policymakers to secure a ban on human cloning. Bills were introduced in the House and Senate in April 2001.

As in 1998, bills backed by the Republican leadership would ban both human reproductive cloning and research cloning, while bills supported by the Democratic leadership would ban only reproductive cloning.

In the House of Representatives, the two primary competing bills were HR 2505 and HR 2172. Bill 2505, "The Human Cloning Prohibition Action of 2001" was introduced by Representative David Weldon (R-FL). It called for permanent bans on both the creation of clonal embryos and their use to produce a fully formed human clone. Bill 2172, the "Cloning Prohibition Act of 2001" was introduced by Representative James Greenwood (R-PA). This bill called for a 10-year moratorium on producing cloned human beings followed by an automatic "sunset." It also required that anyone intending to produce cloned human embryos for research purposes inform the federal government, and promise not to use them to produce fully formed human clones.

On July 31, the House of Representative passed the Weldon bill by a vote of 265 to 162. Voting for the Weldon bill were 200 of 221 House Republicans, joined by 63 of 210 House Democrats, plus two Independents. Democrats who voted for the Weldon bill came almost entirely from conservative southern and western districts, or from northern and eastern blue-collar districts. However, 12 liberal House Democrats, 8 of whom had 100% pro-choice voting records, did vote for the Weldon Bill. Four of these Democrats were African-American, one was Hispanic-American and two were Asian-American.

In April 2001 conservative Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) introduced a companion bill to the Weldon bill (S. 790). In 2002, the legislation was tabled and a vote was never taken.

A similar scenario played out at the start of the following Congressional session. On February 27, 2003, the House approved by 241 to 155 a ban on both reproductive and research cloning, sponsored by Rep. Weldon. A competing bill that would have banned only reproductive cloning, introduced by by Reps. Greenwood and Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), failed by 174 to 231. Equvalent bills were introduced into the Senate but not voted upon.


Why is it that the US, unlike many other nations, has not yet been successful in enacting legislation to ban reproductive cloning?

The need for such legislative policy is particularly great in the US because of the absence of any effective system to license private research laboratories, fertility clinics, or other commercial operations involving human embryos and gametes. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has claimed jurisdiction over human cloning, but is mandated by law to consider only safety and efficacy, and not to consider social, political, or moral issues.

Perhaps the two most obvious differences between the US and other countries are the persistent divisiveness in this country about abortion, and the strength of its biotech lobby. These two factors were critical in undermining Congressional attempts to pass anti-cloning legislation in 1997-98, and are obstructing the second wave of such attempts in 2001 to 2003.

1997-1998 Anti-Cloning Measures

During Senate consideration of anti-cloning legislation in 1998, the biotechnology industry lobbied strongly against the Republican bill that would have banned both reproductive and research cloning, arguing that it would limit medical research. While the biotech industry officially supported the Feinstein-Kennedy bill, outlawing reproductive cloning only, it made no effort to secure its passage after the Republican bill was defeated on the Senate floor.

The second major impediment to passage of cloning legislation in 1998 was its entanglement with the politics of abortion. Anti-choice advocates, opposed to any form of embryo research or manipulation, supported the more comprehensive Republican bill. Pro-choice advocates, hesitant to question the merits of research cloning out of fear that this might elevate the moral status of embryos, supported the Feinstein-Kennedy bill.

To overcome these polarized positions would have required tremendous motivation, energy, and leadership. Unfortunately, few Senators saw an urgent need to enact legislation. While the story of Dolly had captured worldwide attention, many scientists and biotech representatives argued that no serious scientist was proposing to clone a human being, and that such an effort would not and could not occur for a long time. Senator Kennedy played a key role in advocating this position to his fellow Senators during the floor debate:

"It should be clear to everyone that there is absolutely no need to act tomorrow to prevent cloning of a human being. No reputable scientist wants to clone human beings. Scientifically, it cannot be done yet." (Congressional Record, February 10, 1998, Page S561).

During the brief Senate floor debate in 1998, the issue was framed as one pitting medical progress against the rights of the embryo. Very few comments addressed the larger ethical and social implications of research cloning, its eugenic potential, or alternative research avenues. Unsurprisingly, the final vote on the Republican bill fell predominantly along pro-choice versus antiabortion lines, with all 42 votes in its favor cast by antiabortion Republicans.

2001-2003 Anti-Cloning Measures

By 2001, few people were arguing that human cloning was a distant prospect. In both parties, the need to ban reproductive cloning was accepted, though some legislators limited their concerns to the manifest physical dangers that cloning would pose both to cloned children and to the women intending to become pregnant with them.

The major feature of the 2001-2003 Congressional debates on cloning was again the divisive politics of research cloning.

The July 2001 passage in the House of the Weldon bill by a vote of 265 to 162 was stronger than expected. Twelve pro-choice Democrats voted for the Weldon bill. However, the vote was otherwise polarized largely along pro-choice/pro-life lines.

A similar situation took shape in the Senate. Sam Brownback (R-KS), a conservative abortion opponent, introduced a Weldon companion bill (S. 790) that would ban both reproductive and research cloning. Pro-choice Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu (LA) joined him as a co-sponsor, but most of the bill's support came from anti-choice Republicans.

The major competing bill (S. 1758), which would ban reproductive cloning but explicitly approve research cloning, was introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Several anti-choice Republicans, including Orrin Hatch (UT), indicated they would vote for it, but otherwise it was largely supported by pro-choice Democrats.

By late March, both bills appeared to be a few votes short of a majority. In June, both supporters and opponents of embryo cloning offered compromises. Senators Specter and Harkin contemplated incorporating additional regulations and controls into their bills, which in their initial forms granted biotech researchers a nearly unrestricted green light. Senators Brownback and Landrieu tested support for a moratorium rather than the permanent ban for which they initially called.

However, there was not enough compromise to break the existing deadlock and so the Senate chose to put off a vote.

Last modified September 10, 2008