WASHINGTON, March 5 (UPI) -- Paralyzed entertainer Christopher Reeve joined senators and other activists on Capitol Hill Tuesday to rally opposition to legislation that would ban any technology for replicating human genetic material, including methods considered crucial to possible cures for paralysis and other conditions.
The group used a news conference in the Hart Senate Office Building and testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, to decry S. 1899, sponsored by Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Mary Landrieu, D-La.
An attempt to prevent the cloning of an entire human being, the bill would ban somatic cell nuclear transfer, a procedure where the nucleus of an ordinary cell is inserted into an emptied egg cell for any purpose related to human beings.
SCNT -- often misnamed "therapeutic cloning" -- is considered vital in advancing research into embryonic human stem cells, which are capable of developing into any cell type in the body.
"I'm here today because I'm very concerned we're about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," Reeve told the news conference. "It is amazing to me that we have to be here today, because it's so clear that embryonic stem cells ... are a miracle that could be available to us, yet there's a fear factor in this country that's really very disturbing to watch."
Movie producer Jerry Zucker, whose daughter's juvenile diabetes might one day be effectively treated with SCNT-derived therapies, told the news conference the nation has a history of overcoming its fear of science to embrace technologies such as in-vitro fertilization.
"If we are willing to accept the risks of nuclear power because we want to air-condition our houses, why can't we cure cancer without worrying about some worst-case scenario or the fear that some scientist down the line might create a human being?" Zucker said.
Landrieu, testifying before the committee, said the bill's supporters are focused on one principle -- creating human life simply for the purpose of destroying it to benefit others is unethical and should be illegal.
Allowing the procedures while only banning reproductive cloning would be the equivalent of saying it's alright to make narcotics but it's illegal to use them. Several kinds of research, including replicating DNA and investigating embryonic stem cells, would be allowed under the bill, she said.
The Brownback-Landrieu bill mirrors a House measure that passed overwhelmingly last summer. The Senate faces increasing pressure, including an ad campaign from anti-abortion and religious groups, to act quickly on the measure.
Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down in an equestrian accident in the mid-1990s, said the campaign's talk of "embryo farms" and other threatening imagery is nonsense.
Passing the bill would cost the United States its preeminence in science and medicine, Reeve testified, especially since countries such as Sweden, Israel and the United Kingdom are moving forward with SCNT-related research.
"Those are not rogue nations behaving irresponsibly; they are allies, no less moral than we are," Reeve told the committee. "If we act now, we still have a chance to catch up."
Paul Berg, a biochemistry professor and director of a genetic medicine center at Stanford University, told the committee cloning human DNA was key to mapping the human species' genome. Cloning for the purpose of creating an entire human already is rightfully shunned by the scientific community, he said.
"Senator Brownback's proposed legislation goes far beyond a prohibition on reproductive cloning," Berg testified. "His bill also includes two provisions that would deprive American patients access to potential therapies."
Not only would the ban limit work on embryonic stem cells, Berg said, it also would prevent researchers from creating disease-prone tissue to study how conditions such as cancer develop. Even more onerous, he said, is the bill's attempt to make it illegal for anyone to import SCNT-related therapies or procedures from other countries.
"It would appear, therefore, that millions of suffering Americans would be denied hope of cures for their disabilities because certain members of Congress possess an aversion, admittedly deeply felt, to a procedure that was used in (the cure's) development," Berg said.