Frustrated by Congress's failure to ban human cloning or place even modest limits on human embryo research, a group of influential conservatives have drafted a broad "bioethics agenda" for President Bush's second term and have begun the delicate task of building a political coalition to support it.
The loose-knit group of about a dozen people -- largely spearheaded by Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and Eric Cohen, editor of the New Atlantis, a conservative journal of technology and society -- have been meeting since December. Their goal, according to a document circulating among members and others, is to devise "a bold and plausible 'offensive' bioethics agenda" to replace a congressional strategy that has been "too narrowly focused and insufficiently ambitious."
"We have today an administration and a Congress as friendly to human life and human dignity as we are likely to have for many years to come," reads the document, which was obtained by The Washington Post. "It would be tragic if we failed to take advantage of this rare opportunity to enact significant bans on some of the most egregious biotechnical practices."
Yet the effort to galvanize Congress has already run into a major roadblock -- and not from scientists, patient advocacy groups or the biotechnology industry. In an unusual instance of open divisiveness among Bush's conservative base, the nascent agenda is under attack by a variety of opponents of embryo research, including Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who led failed efforts in the past four years to pass legislation that would ban the cloning of babies and human embryos for research.
The split has some conservatives on Capitol Hill worried that the new Congress's efforts to regulate these technologies could get bogged down in factional fighting even as several states take steps to mimic California's recent decision to expand human embryo research.
"We'd like to have everybody on the same page," said David Prentice, a senior fellow for life sciences at the conservative Family Research Council. "But people have different ideas of how to do that and what the page should be."
Twice in the past four years the House has passed legislation to ban the cloning of human embryos for any purpose -- whether to make a baby or as a source of stem cells. A majority of the Senate, however, signed a letter last year saying that while they oppose the creation of cloned babies, they support a relaxation of Bush's restrictions on the use of stem cells, which show promise for the treatment of many diseases.
Brownback's strategy has been to link the two issues, hoping that the nearly universal repugnance elicited by the idea of cloning babies might help win a ban on cloning embryos for research.
But Kass and others have concluded that Brownback's approach has been a strategic mistake, causing the debate to degenerate into endless discussions about whether a cloned human embryo is a cloned human, and whether an embryo in a lab dish has the same moral standing as one in a womb. Kass advocates separating the issue of cloned embryos for research from related issues of technological baby-making.
While Congress has been stymied, Kass and others noted, Britain has approved human embryo cloning experiments, California passed an initiative supporting such work and the United Nations declined to pass a convention to ban all embryo cloning.
"We have lost much ground," states the document, which congressional aides said Kass has been championing in meetings on the Hill.
The document complains that the administration "got no credit from scientists, physicians and patient groups" for allowing limited federal funding of research on stem cells derived from human embryos while "radical techniques of human reproduction and genetic manipulation proceed unscrutinized and unregulated" in the private sector.
Kass emphasized yesterday that his effort to craft a new legislative agenda on cloning, stem cells and related issues was independent of his role as chairman of Bush's bioethics council and that no federal resources have been used by the group, which he said has no name.
"The rapid advance of new technologies makes it urgent to look afresh for successful ways to defend human procreation against a broad range of degrading practices and to protect nascent human life against creation solely for research," Kass said in an e-mail.
But Brownback and several other conservative activists reaffirmed their commitment to the strategy of linking a ban on baby cloning to a ban on research cloning.
"The proposal being promoted by Kass undermines our ability to pass a comprehensive ban on all human cloning," Brownback said.
Several advocates of stem cell research privately expressed glee at the apparent rift among their foes, and one promised to fight efforts to restrict the research.
"As long as the anti-scientific forces in Congress want to restrict legitimate science, they're going to have problems getting things passed," said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for a the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a coalition of groups supporting stem cell research.