While President Bush's call for a federal ban on human cloning will bring no immediate congressional action, the New Jersey Legislature is moving at breakneck speed toward legalization. What's more, the state's Republican legislators are not impeding this rush toward passage, ignoring admonitions from the White House.
When the cloning bill passed the state Senate (evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans) late last year, not a single GOP senator voted no. A committee of the Democratic-controlled state Assembly unanimously approved the bill on Monday, Republicans abstaining. With the GOP offering no opposition, the full Assembly is expected to pass the bill as early as Monday and send it to Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey. When he signs it, New Jersey will become the only state where human cloning is expressly legal.
"If New Jersey passes this legislation," said Marie Tasy of New Jersey Right to Life, which has led the opposition, "the Raelians should feel comfortable calling New Jersey home and setting up cloning labs in the Garden State." The bizarre is familiar in Trenton, where conflict of interest is common among state legislators and Republicans are divided and leaderless. GOP legislators protest that the issue is too complicated to understand. But they are clear in not wanting to get on the wrong side of the bill's most visible advocate, paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve.
Republican lawmakers may be confused by claims from the bill's sponsors that it actually bans human cloning. They should read the Jan. 27 letter to McGreevey by four members of the President's Council on Bioethics (Robert George of Princeton University, Alfonso Gomez-Lobo of Georgetown University, William Hurlbut of Stanford University and Gilbert Meilaender of Valparaiso University). They contend the bill "expressly authorizes the creation of new human beings by cloning" and "threatens to make New Jersey a haven for unethical medical practices, including the macabre practice of human fetal farming."
This measure would permit somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) -- a process used in making a human clone. While supporters argue this is not cloning, the president's council disagrees -- unanimously. It reported last summer that "the product of 'SCNT' is not only an embryo, it is also a clone -- genetically virtually identical to the individual that was the source of the transferred nucleus, hence the embryonic clone of the donor." Even the minority of the council that does not oppose research cloning agrees that SCNT amounts to human cloning.
When the bill came before the Senate on Dec. 16, the vote was 25 to 0 -- all 20 Democrats and five Republicans voting aye, the remaining 15 Republicans abstaining. The five GOP supporters included Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, who doubles as state party chairman. Kyrillos was reported by colleagues to have said in a party caucus: "We can't vote against Christopher Reeve." ("I don't remember saying that," he told me.) Kyrillos is pro-choice, as is another of the Republican five, state Sen. Bill Gormley, a failed 2000 candidate for the U.S. Senate.
In Trenton, other Republican supporters did not worry about conflict with their day jobs. State Sen. Robert Singer, co-majority leader of the Senate, works for the Community-Kimball Medical Center. Richard Bagger was talked about for governor before he resigned from the Senate on Jan. 15 to take a promotion at the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm, where he was already employed at the time of the cloning vote.
Beyond the distinctive mores of Trenton, pro-choice sentiments pervade the money-raisers and contributors of the Republican Party. Kyrillos is a close associate of the militantly pro-choice Lewis Eisenberg of Rumson, N.J., who last week was reelected national finance chairman of the Republican Party. Kyrillos and Eisenberg serve on the Republican Leadership Council, which pursues the election of socially liberal Republicans.
New Jersey's prospective status as a haven for human cloning may be short-lived. Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, principal sponsor of legislation to ban human cloning nationally, received assurances on Tuesday from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that the measure will be considered once it comes over from the House (something that did not happen in the Democratic-controlled Senate the last two years). That may well happen by early autumn -- not enough time for New Jersey to become the breeding center for a brave new world.
(c)2003 Creators Syndicate Inc.