WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Wednesday that would ban reproductive cloning but allow a separate procedure called research or therapeutic cloning that can be used to produce embryonic stem cells that could potentially treat disease.
A bipartisan group of members of Congress also announced plans to introduce similar legislation in the House next week.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., makes human reproductive cloning a crime punishable by 10 years in prison and at least a $1 million fine, Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley told United Press International.
The bill, called the Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2003 would allow therapeutic cloning to be conducted under strict ethical guidelines and federal oversight, Manley said. Those violating the ethical provisions would face fines of as much as $250,000.
The bill dictates that an ethics board review all therapeutic cloning research to ensure it does not threaten the safety or privacy of patients involved. All studies involving this technique would have to take place in labs that are separate from labs in which in vitro fertilization is done to minimize the possibility that it would lead to reproductive cloning.
The bill would also ban the sale or purchase of unfertilized eggs from females, which are necessary for doing therapeutic cloning. Compensation for egg donors would be set at a low level in an effort to discourage individuals from profiting from the procedure.
Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., said he plans to introduce a similar bill in the House "early next week" Greenwood's spokeswoman Stephanie Fischer told UPI. That bill will be co-sponsored by Peter Deutsch, D-Fla., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo. Greenwood "expects it to be debated on the floor (of the House) in mid-February," Fischer said.
The cloning debate is likely to be contentious as some members of Congress favor a total cloning ban. Bipartisan supported legislation that would ban all forms of cloning was previously introduced in the House and the Senate in January and President Bush has signaled his support for a total ban. The total cloning ban bills were led by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Pa.
Biomedical researchers and patient advocacy groups favor allowing therapeutic cloning and support the Hatch/Kennedy plan.
Kevin Wilson, spokesman for the American Society for Cell Biology, a group representing more than 10,000 scientists, said his organization wants therapeutic cloning to be allowed because it "holds great promise and potential for finding treatments for some of the most horrible diseases."
In addition, the bills to ban therapeutic cloning "could have a serious impact on the American scientific community's efforts to discover the cures and treatments to help some of the most debilitating diseases ... because that legislation turns researchers into criminals," Wilson told UPI.
"The scientific community is not making guarantees here (but) they think this work has potential so they want to be allowed to find out," he said.
The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group representing more than 70 physician, scientific and patient organizations, favors the increased oversight of therapeutic cloning proposed in the bills introduced today, CAMR spokesman Sean Tipton told UPI.
"It's a pretty dramatic step for scientists to sort of be seeking additional regulation but I think we recognize its importance in this area," Tipton said.
The House passed a total ban on cloning last session and appears likely to do the same this year. However, the Senate stalled on the issue because some members pushed for allowing therapeutic cloning and that debate could thwart a total ban again this session.
Tipton, who closely monitors Congressional actions on cloning, said, "There appears to be an effort to rush" the total cloning ban bill to the floor of the House. This is "because (the bill's sponsor) Congressman Weldon understands that the more time there is for policy-makers to understand this complicated issue the worse it is for this bill," Tipton said.
"It's a complicated issue and its easy to say I want to ban cloning and it takes some time (for House members) to come to understand that there are applications of the technology that don't have anything to do with making babies," Tipton said.
It appears unlikely the Senate will pass a total ban on cloning, Tipton added. "The Senate is not going to pass a research prohibition. They're not going to deny hope to the millions of Americans suffering from a disease that this research could help," he said.
Opponents of therapeutic cloning have argued there is no scientific evidence embryonic stem cells derived from the procedure will ever lead to treatments for disease. Instead, they maintain, research should focus on using adult stem cells, which can be derived from a person without the necessary destruction of an embryo that is required to get embryonic stem cells.
"To say that we don't need to do (therapeutic cloning) and don't need to do embryonic stem cell work because adult stem cells are going to save the world is not true," Wilson said. "Scientists, including some of the premiere adult stem cell researchers in the world, say we need to do research on embryonic stem cells."
Another indicator of the promise of therapeutic cloning may lie in the removal of the importation provision in the total cloning ban bill. The bill passed by the House last year also banned importation into the United States of medical treatments derived from therapeutic cloning. Weldon removed that provision from his bill this year. Now it would allow beneficial medical therapies developed overseas to be used on patients in the United States.
That "seems to be a tacit endorsement that the science may indeed lead to something," Tipton said. "Otherwise why would you care about that?"
Brownback and Weldon did not return phone calls from UPI by presstime.