DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This news about embryonic stem cells and cloning seems almost certain to rekindle a political fight. It's one that has raged on and off since the announcement of the creation of Dolly, the cloned sheep, back in 1997. NPR's Julie Rovner has this report.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Experts who have followed the legal and legislative debates around stem cell research and cloning don't make a lot of predictions. But Hank Greely of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School feels pretty confident about this one, given yesterday's news.
HANK GREELY: The issue of legislation on human cloning is about to get hot again.
ROVNER: That's because for all the arguing about the issue that's happened in Washington over the years, human cloning is still technically legal, at least in much of the country. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, thinks that needs to be changed.
MARCY DARNOVSKY: There are already 60 countries in the world that have laws on their books banning human reproductive cloning. But in the United States we have not managed to put such a law on the books at a federal level.
ROVNER: Fifteen states ban cloning, either for reproductive purposes or research, or in some cases both. But Congress has mostly fought issues of both stem cell research and cloning to a draw, says Darnovsky.
DARNOVSKY: What we saw the last time cloning was in the headlines was that the discussion really got mired in the abortion controversy.
ROVNER: As has the issue of embryonic stem cell research. About the only law that's been able to pass dates back to the mid-1990s. It's part of an annual funding bill for the Department of Health and Human Services. It bars the use of federal funds for research that could destroy or harm a human embryo. That appeared to bar all funding of embryonic stem cell research, but in 1999 the Clinton administration decided some embryonic stem cell research could be funded. That policy never funded any research. It was President Bush who first funded research, but he put even more limits on what would qualify.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made.
ROVNER: Meanwhile, for at least a decade Congress debated several bills to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research under specific ethical guidelines, as well as legislation to ban all forms of cloning. None, however, was able to pass both the House and Senate and get signed by the president. When he came into office in 2009, President Obama used his executive authority to permit federal funding for more stem cell lines while adding more ethical guidelines.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The majority of Americans, from across the political spectrum, and from all backgrounds and beliefs, have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research.
ROVNER: Congress still remains deadlocked over the bioethical issues, but that's not to say that there's no federal regulation. Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that the Food and Drug Administration has from the start said it would closely regulate anything it deemed to be human cloning, whether reproductive or therapeutic.
JONATHAN MORENO: Once you start talking about putting many of the products of these cells into people, then, you know, you get into an area where the FDA is very interested.
ROVNER: Meanwhile, Marcy Darnovsky, whose group is devoted to the responsible use of new genetic and reproductive technologies, says she hopes the specter of cloned human embryos in labs around the country might now break the legislative logjam.
DARNOVSKY: And we really need to make sure that no unscrupulous person would ever try to use those to produce a cloned human being.
ROVNER: Congress, however, has been unable to pass much of anything this year. It's unclear yet if this news will make enough of a difference. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.