If The Chronicle editorial board's heated internal debate about human cloning is any indication of the deep divisions between Americans on this issue, then the nation needs a timeout on human cloning research.
In spite of the breathless announcement by Michael D. West, president of Advanced Cell Technology, that therapeutic cloning will lead to many breakthrough cures, there remain too many unanswered questions to allow research on embryos to proceed without a wide-ranging discussion about where science is taking us down the road from Dolly, the original cloned sheep.
For some Americans, it's just a question of medical advancement. For others, the issue represents moral quicksand that began with abortion and ends who-knows-where.
Cloning proponents say a greater good - cures for diseases that fully formed humans develop - outweigh the miniscule legal status that embryos now have. The ends justify the means.
Opponents say that creating human embryos for the sole purpose of harvesting them bumps up against an insurmountable moral and ethical bulwark.
Many of these opponents are also uncomfortable with abortion because, they believe, destroying an embryo may not be just destroying tissue but ending a human life, a belief that cannot be simply pooh-poohed away by those who do not share it.
Cloning reopens a wound that has divided the country for decades, beginning with Roe vs. Wade. It's a festering sore that now takes on the additional complications of stem cell research and human cloning. We are once again forced to examine our beliefs about the nature of the soul and the sanctity of human life.
The questions are likely to get more difficult as the series of if-then scenarios are explored: If creating embryos to harvest them is OK, is it also acceptable to use aborted fetuses to grow organs for harvest? If embryos can be cloned, would it be right to allow them to be used for reproduction?
In addition to the myriad tough questions of morality, legal questions must be answered involving the patenting of human genetic material and the commercialization of such material. Those murky legal waters will be patrolled by patent attorneys and speculative investors, all looking for opportunity.
One thing is clear, however. The nation cannot depend on scientists working at for-profit firms such as Advanced Cell Technology to tell us what is or isn't moral. That is a question that citizens living in the most scientifically advanced nation in history must wrestle with, not just in scientific terms, but in terms of the moral and social fabric of our country.
Before Sept. 11, Congress was holding hearings on a proposal to ban human cloning, a process that was sidetracked by national security issues. Now, science is moving at an accelerated pace, and has gotten ahead of the national debate. It's time to throw on the brake so people can learn and think about cloning, and decide where they stand at this particular crossroad.