WASHINGTON - With its chairman declaring that "the very nature of what it means to be human" was at issue, a presidential bioethics panel on Thursday began an examination of cloning that is expected to shape the government's response to the first successful cloning of an adult animal.
Protestant and Catholic theologians who appeared before the 18-member panel uniformly opposed the creation of new human beings through biotechnology, with a Lutheran scholar telling them, "A child should be a gift and not a product."
The moral and legal implications of human cloning, previously esoteric material for science fiction stories, have caught the imagination of the public and lawmakers since the announcement a few weeks ago that a Scottish scientist had cloned a sheep.
President Clinton has ordered a 90-day moratorium on federally funded research on human cloning and asked private researchers to voluntarily suspend any similar efforts. His National Bioethics Advisory Commission is to issue its report by the end of that period.
Bills to ban human cloning have been introduced in Congress, as well as in several state legislatures and foreign parliaments, prompting some scientists to express concern that overly broad bans could deny society beneficial medical uses of cloning techniques.
"This goes to the very heart of what (people) think of as their families and their individuality. That's why there's so much impact," said the commission's chairman, Howard Shapiro, president of Princeton University.
Given the suddenness of the breakthrough on cloning, which surprised even scientists in the field, Shapiro said he does not expect his commission to provide a lasting answer to the ethical dilemmas. But he said he hopes its report will be "a milestone" as society repeatedly revisits the issue in the years ahead.
"Like all great moral issues, there is no permanent consensus. You can only reach a temporary resolution that seems to make sense in their times, for their feelings," Shapiro said.
Indeed, the shifting moral consensus on reproductive technology is underscored by the electronic mail Shapiro said he has been receiving since the commission took on the task.
Among the "over a hundred" messages a day he receives on cloning, most are from childless couples concerned that the commission might somehow restrict in vitro fertilization. The reproductive method, widely considered ethically suspect only a decade ago, is now accepted relatively broadly.
Much of the discussion and questioning among the scientists, ethicists, lawyers and biotechnology executives on the panel Thursday focused on defining what might be acceptable and unacceptable cloning.
Commission member Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin law professor, noted that legislation proposed in various states would have widely different impacts on research because of definitions used.
The idea of making distinctions about cloning was supported by four Christian theologians who testified before the panel.
Although he said the Roman Catholic Church would consider the creation of a child through cloning "an affront to human dignity," the church would not necessarily be opposed to other uses of cloning technology, said the Rev. Albert Moraczewski, former president of the Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics in Health Care in St. Louis.
Moraczewski cited as acceptable such theoretical uses of cloning technology as the creation of perfectly matched tissue for transplant from the cloned cells of a patient and the use of cloning technology to improve animal breeds.
Moraczewski was joined by Protestant theologians on the panel in adamant objections to the creation of entire human beings through cloning.
Valparaiso University professor Gilbert Meilaender, a Lutheran theologian, said a child is "a gift and not a product ... To lose even in principle this idea that a child is a gift will not be good for children."
At one point, the proceedings were disrupted by two humans dressed as sheep. The costumed protesters were from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and demanded that animals not be treated as "test tubes with tails."
One of the protesters carried a sign that said, "Cloning is Baaad."