"The federal government and Congress hate getting anywhere near this area [IVF]," says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "As soon as they do, they find themselves immersed in the abortion wars. And that's why for 20 years, they haven't [regulated the field]."
The new proposal may break the impasse because a ban on cloning for human reproduction enjoys wide support across the political spectrum and from scientists. In calling for it, the council for the first time separates the issue from a ban on so-called therapeutic cloning, which aims to use embryonic stem cells - very early-stage human embryos - for medical research. The report does not endorse therapeutic cloning, noting that the council members themselves differ strongly on the subject. But, significantly, it remains silent.
The report also calls for a ban on the use of embryos more than 10 to 14 days old, implicitly acknowledging the existence of embryonic stem-cell research, which typically involves embryos no more than five or six days old. "It's a concession I'm surprised to see them make," Dr. Caplan says. "The 14-day discussion may signal the start of a reconsideration of the [council's] stem-cell policy."
It's an important recognition that "something biological happens" at the 14-day point, which biologists recognize as the time when an embryo must either be implanted in a womb or frozen, or it will die, adds Dr. Jane Maienschein, director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University in Tempe. That seems to represent a "softening" of the position of those on the council who see the embryo as a human life from its outset, she says.
The ban on reproductive cloning appears as a recommendation in a report on IVF - so-called test-tube babies - issued April 1.