WASHINGTON – A presidential advisory council on bioethics began examining Thursday the ethical, scientific and legal issues surrounding human cloning, an issue that now rests before the Congress.
While President Bush has already said he favors a wholesale ban on human cloning and a restriction on the cell lines that can be used for medical research, he appointed the 18-member council to looking at the philosophical and scientific underpinnings of the debate as well as other bioethics issues.
The panel is headed by University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass, who has come out strongly against cloning for stem cell research, euthanasia and in-vitro fertilization, which is used by many infertile couples and widely accepted.
Some critics have been concerned that the president would stack the panel, which will address Congress with its findings, with those agreeable to his own beliefs.
But at least one observer said the appointees appear to be fair, reasonable and well-qualified experts.
"I think it's a distinguished group," said bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, who said he had been worried that the group would be stacked with conservatives. He said the panel members appear to lean to the political right, but that the group includes a variety of views. "It's got a spin but it's not toppled over."
The first topic on the council's agenda is human cloning. Last year, the House passed a ban on all human cloning, but Democrats and many Republicans in the Senate favor a ban that exempts cloning for research purposes that does not involve implanting a cloned embryo into a woman's uterus.
Cloning for research purposes, for instance, could involve cloning the cells of a particular patient in order to create new, embryonic stem cells that are less likely to be rejected when used in treating the disease.
But opponents argue that this sort of treatment would involve destroying the newly created embryo, which they say is a human life of its own, or at least has the potential to become one.
A series of working papers prepared for members of the council laid out arguments on all sides of the debate and made it clear that moral as well as scientific issues would be on the table.
"There is a need both for sobriety and for a full hearing of all arguments in this debate, and it is in this spirit of open inquiry that the council shall do its work," a paper prepared by the council's staff concludes.
"But there is also the need for responsible judgments and policies, and for recognition of the fact that these are inescapably moral matters, to be decided on not by scientists or techno-entrepreneurs acting alone but by all of us conversing and deliberating in the public square."
The council is also charged with tackling embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia, issues that deeply divide Americans. Bush also asked the council to examine assisted reproduction, typically in-vitro fertilization.
The president promised in August to create the council after struggling with whether the government should finance promising but controversial research involving stem cells derived from human embryos. It replaces a similar commission that advised President Clinton.
Working papers prepared by the council's staff examine issues ranging from the "human dignity" of a cloned embryo to the need for scientific advancement and ramifications of banning promising research.
The White House did not identify the members of the council until Wednesday. It said they were chosen for their diverse views, specialized knowledge and thoughtfulness.
"With their assistance and guidance, the president will continue to forge a policy on bioethical issues that reflects his strong support of science and technology, as well as his deep respect for human life and human dignity," the White House said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.