Cloning Debate Splits Women's Health Movement

Women's health advocates who typically see eye to eye on most issues disagree about a proposed bill that would ban human cloning for reproductive and research purposes. Others are conspicuously on the sidelines.

Phyllis Greenberger

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-Women's health groups are at odds over a proposed congressional bill that would ban human cloning for reproductive and research purposes. Some say the ban would protect women from the dangers of an unregulated industry, but others believe the legislation would interfere with medical advances and could threaten reproductive freedom.

Wary of a bill backed by anti-abortion leaders, some women's health experts say a total ban on human cloning could set a dangerous precedent for the pro-choice movement because it would protect a human embryo from the moment of conception. They also contend that a ban would hinder women's health because it would outlaw scientific research on embryonic stem cells that could lead to advances in diseases of particular concern to women.

Still others say that cloning and abortion rights are entirely unrelated issues. They say a total ban would not jeopardize the abortion rights and would protect women from the potential dangers of a new technology not fully understood by scientists, doctors or politicians.

“Everything relating to abortion and embryos splits the women's health community,” says Susan M. Wolf, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Minnesota Law School and editor of the book “Feminism in Bioethics: Beyond Reproduction.”

Senate leaders say they hope to vote on the bill this summer, but Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has not yet set a date to begin debate. President Bush, who supports a total ban on human cloning, has indicated he would sign the bill into law. A similar bill passed the House of Representatives last year.

There is broad support among women's groups for banning anyone from creating embryos with the intent of implanting them in women to produce children. But some women's health groups are crying foul over the bill because they believe a total ban on human cloning, which would also ban cloning embryonic stem cells for research purposes, would interfere with the promise of scientific breakthroughs that could be advantageous to women.

The research-also called therapeutic cloning-could lead to advances in the fight against diseases of particular concern to women such as breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis and autoimmune diseases. The process could also advance research for diseases that affect the population at large such as Parkinson's Disease, stroke, heart disease, Lou Gehrig's Disease and various cancers.

“Women's health advocates have worked for years to overcome researchers' past neglect of women's health,” officials from three women's health groups wrote in a May 4 letter to Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and champion of the movement to legalize research on cloned embryonic stem cells.

“In our pursuit of better information, treatment and cures for women and their families, we must ensure that the newest and most promising techniques are available to those same researchers,” they wrote. The letter was signed by the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Society for Women's Health Research and The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Opponents of Therapeutic Cloning Offer Wide Range of Arguments

Such groups face significant hurdles in Congress, however, where a coalition of anti-abortion and anti-cloning members oppose therapeutic cloning because they say it would create human embryos with the specific intent of destroying them and because they fear that the embryonic stem cells could be misused by some scientists.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a total ban on human cloning last year. A number of pro-choice congresswomen, including New York Democrat Carolyn McCarthy and Republicans Marge Roukema of New Jersey and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, joined a total of 200 Republicans and 65 Democrats to help pass it.

It remains unclear whether the Democratic-led Senate supports a companion bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, the torchbearer of the Christian Right. About 40 to 45 senators are said to support the ban; a similar number are said to oppose it. Neither has a clear majority.

Women's health groups also face obstacles within their own community from advocates who say allowing scientists to move forward with therapeutic cloning would endanger the lives of women.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a pro-choice Democrat from Louisiana, is the only Democrat who publicly supports the Brownback bill. She said she supports a total ban on human cloning in part because she fears the process would lead to what she calls “the commodification of women's bodies.” The demand for women's eggs, she said, could create “an unseemly market” where low-income women are under financial pressure to permit the harvesting and sale of their eggs.

Susan Yanow, director of the Abortion Access Project, shared Landrieu's concern.

“From a feminist perspective and a reproductive-rights perspective, one of the things I'm very concerned about is . . . that our women's bodies are for sale,” she said, adding later, “What does it mean for reproductive rights if women are reduced to incubators?”

Another women's health group, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, has called for a five-year moratorium on therapeutic cloning. The moratorium would allow time for a full-fledged public policy debate to take place and stricter federal regulations to be implemented before a “Pandora's box” of health problems is opened, according to executive director Judy Norsigian, co-author of “Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century.”

Health Concerns for Women Involved in Stem Cell Research

Norsigian worries that scientists, in their zeal to collect large quantities of fertilized eggs, will rely on a drug called Lupron, which stimulates the ovaries, causing women to produce about 12 eggs each month rather than just one. The financial incentives to produce large quantities of eggs may encourage low-income women to take Lupron, which, she said, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the purpose of ovarian hyper-stimulation. She also said she has concerns about possible surgical operations involved in the collection of large quantities of eggs.

“Here we are with potentially thousands of eggs to be gathered with potentially dangerous drugs to be used,” Norsigian said. “It may be four or five years before we resolve the question of this drug's safety.”

Other women's health advocates, however, consider a five-year moratorium on therapeutic cloning unnecessary and even disingenuous because they say it would effectually prohibit the practice permanently. Indeed, if the Senate passes the ban on human cloning and the president signs it into law, therapeutic cloning would carry a fine of up to $1 million and a 10-year prison sentence.

Legalizing and funding therapeutic cloning would safeguard women's health because it would lead to stricter government regulations and oversight, said Phyllis Greenberger, president of the Society for Women's Health Research. She added that outlawing the practice would have financially disastrous consequences because it would lead to a so-called brain drain: Talented scientists, she said, would move to European countries such as England and Italy, where such research is flourishing.

Greenberger also called the argument against the commodification of women's bodies “a joke.” Low-income women, she said, have not been compelled to sell their bodies even though there is an existing demand for surrogate mothers and organ donors.

“It's a very paternalistic viewpoint that some women aren't going to have control over their bodies or aren't going to make decisions for themselves,” she said, adding later, “Do we not have minds of our own?”

Three Major Organizations Remain Neutral

Some experts are also say a ban on human cloning could chip away at the reproductive-rights movement. They note that voting for a bill that protects a human embryo from the moment of conception could set a dangerous precedent for future votes on abortion rights.

The country's most prominent reproductive rights groups-the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood-have remained neutral on the issue, suggesting that they don't see the bill as a threat.

Others say the silence of these prominent organizations speaks volumes. They say women's groups in favor of therapeutic cloning hope to keep the polarizing issue of abortion out of the debate in order to allow anti-abortion politicians to side with embryonic stem cell research.

“Certainly, the anti-choice organizations and activists have taken this on as a primary issue,” Susannah Baruch, director of health policy at the National Partnership for Women and Families, said when asked why a number of outspoken feminist groups have shied away from the issue. “So I think you have to draw your own conclusion from that.”

Their strategy seems to be working. In a surprise move last month, anti-abortion Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah parted with the majority of his GOP Senate colleagues to join Kennedy in his appeal to legalize therapeutic cloning.

“I come to this issue with a strong pro-life, pro-family record,” Hatch said in a release at the time of his decision. “But I also strongly believe that a critical part of being pro-life is to support measures that help the living.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:

Society for Women's Health Research:

Boston Women's Health Book Collective:

National Partnership for Women and Families: