Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Red Light, Green Light: The California Cloning and Stem Cell Laws

By Margaret R. McLean

The recent signing of stem cell and reproductive cloning legislation by California Governor Gray Davis demonstrates, once again, that the Golden State is ahead of the regulatory pack. The legislation includes a permanent ban on reproductive cloning and an explicit endorsement of stem cell research. The stem cell bill thaws the federally induced chill on such research by opening up opportunities and state funds for study of multipotent and pluripotent stems cells, including those produced by nuclear transplantation.

Both pieces of legislation are rooted in the post-Dolly national debate about cloning. As that debate was reaching impasse in 1997, California enacted a five-year moratorium on the use of cloning technology to produce a child.

As required by that legislation, California appointed a committee to evaluate the "medical, ethical, and social implications" of human cloning. That panel - on which I served - spent over two years listening to specialists and members of the public discuss how the state ought to respond both to the potential to produce cloned human beings through somatic cell nuclear transplantation and to the budding use of this technique to produce human stem cells. The committee's report was delivered to Sacramento in January.

The committee's unanimous conclusion to ban reproductive cloning - cloning to produce a child for rearing - rested chiefly on profound concerns for the physical safety both of the baby produced and of the gestational mother. But reproductive cloning raises many other significant social and ethical problems, including confusing familial relationships, psychological harms to the DNA donor, and commercialization of the family.

The use of nuclear transplantation technology in medical research - "non-reproductive cloning" in the advisory committee's report - raised neither these particular safety nor the relational concerns, and the committee concluded that it was justified by the potential to alleviate the suffering caused by diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's. Such research, the committee recommended, ought be subject to state regulation and restricted to blastocysts of less than fourteen days. Strikingly, the committee championed regulations that would govern both privately and publicly funded research. Again, the decision was unanimous.

On 22 September, Governor Davis signed the first law in any state explicitly endorsing stem cell research "involving the derivation and use of human embryonic germ cells, and human adult stem cells from any source including somatic cell nuclear transplantation," with oversight from the institutional review boards. Embryos cannot be bought or sold. With another stroke of the pen, Davis signed the permanent ban on human reproductive cloning. This bill also mandates the formation of a nine-member state advisory committee to consider what the prior committee described as "dangerous or unwise applications of our new scientific knowledge of human biology."

The bills' roots in the advisory committee recommendations show that citizen panels can aid the legislative process. Now California must address federal attempts to criminalize the very research it just encouraged.

Margaret R. McLean is the Director of Biotechnology and Health Care Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

This article appeared in the Hastings Center Report.

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