DES MOINES — The Iowa Legislature has voted to repeal a ban on human cloning that it had passed overwhelmingly just five years ago. The ban, originally passed with a bipartisan vote in 2002 and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, had been considered a landmark piece of legislation in preventing the creation of human clones for use in scientific experiments.

The legalization of human cloning came about as a result of the Democratic takeover of the state Legislature last November and the successful election of Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, who made cloning a top priority.

But it has touched off a debate in neighboring Nebraska. That state’s unicameral Legislature is beginning to debate a cloning ban like the one Iowa has just repealed.

The repeal of Iowa’s cloning ban passed each house of the state Legislature — first the Senate on Feb. 14, and then the House on Feb. 22 — by the slimmest of margins and mostly along party lines. It could not have passed but for the defection of one key pro-life Democratic legislator.

Gov. Culver signed the bill Feb. 28.

One Vote Margins

The margin in the Senate was just one vote, with a final result of 26 to 24 — meaning that the repeal bill would have failed had one vote gone the other way.

In the House, where bills require 51 votes to pass, the measure actually received 52 votes, but only because one pro-life legislator accidentally voted “Yes” when she meant to vote “No.” The deciding vote was actually cast by a Catholic, Rep. Brian Quirk D-New Hampton, who had voted pro-life in the past.

Quirk did not respond to inquiries from the Register about his vote.

Kim Lehman, president of Iowa Right to Life, told the Register that Quirk had promised to vote against the repeal and broke his promise. This was particularly damaging, she said, as Quirk had been involved in orchestrating the strategy against the repeal of the cloning ban.

“Three or four weeks out from the vote, he and I sat down in the cafeteria, strategizing and talking about how he could help us talk to other Democrats so that they would hear the whole truth,” said Lehman.

She said that Quirk “was definitely solid with us” right up until the vote. “He came out just minutes before the vote and said to me that he didn’t want to see embryos that were going to be thrown away anyway to not be used for research,” said Lehman. “But that’s not what this bill did — this bill just repealed the ban on cloning.”

Lehman suggested that Quirk had either become confused or had used the left-over embryo argument as an excuse for breaking his promise and voting with his party leaders.

“I told him that this bill creates embryos — it’s not a left-over embryo issue here,” she said. “He either thought I was wrong or misled, or he deliberately chose that as his excuse.” Others accused Quirk of changing his mind because he received a call from rock musician Sheryl Crow the night before the vote.

Misleading Debate

Supporters of the bill avoided discussions of “cloning,” casting the vote instead as being for embryonic stem-cell research — or even just for “stem-cell research.” The bill was even titled the “Iowa Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative.”

Gov. Culver also released a statement after the vote, praising the Legislature. “The research enabled by this initiative has the potential to unveil cures for debilitating and life-threatening illnesses,” he said. “I am thrilled that Iowa will soon join surrounding states in conducting this type of groundbreaking and potentially lifesaving scientific research.”

But a review of the bill’s text shows that it does not legalize or fund any kind of stem-cell research — embryonic, adult, or otherwise. Rather, it simply repeals the 2002 cloning ban, and then inserts language into the state code forbidding so-called “reproductive cloning,” or the implantation of a human clone into a woman’s uterus. The clear purpose of the bill is to allow the creation of human clones, which could then possibly be destroyed in order to derive stem cells — something no scientist has achieved before.

“The rhetoric employed was always about stem cells,” said Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference, who lobbied against the repeal. But, he added, “Embryonic and adult stem-cell research has always been legal.” The state Legislature attempted and failed to ban embryonic stem-cell research in 2002, at the same time the Iowa House passed the cloning ban on a vote of 91-1.

Even Vilsack, the former governor who had signed the cloning ban, resorted to misleading statements in order to drum up support for reversing his own ban. In his 2006 State of the State Address, Vilsack inexplicably offered the argument that new cures have been developed through human cloning — which he referred to as “nuclear cell transplant.”

“At the time [of the ban], we never dreamt that new treatments dependent upon such transplants would be developed so quickly,” Vilsack had said. “Well, they have been, and as a result we should revisit our ban on nuclear cell transplants … and allow life saving treatments to be administered to Iowans here in Iowa rather than forcing them to leave our state.”

No treatments or therapies have ever been developed through human cloning.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said of Iowa’s legalization of cloning, “I think it is a move going against the direction the science is going.” Brownback, who has for years led the unsuccessful campaign to ban human cloning on the federal level, said that advances in the science of adult stem-cell research will eventually convince scientists that cloning is unnecessary. “The science is all moving toward the amniotic fluids, adult and cord-blood stem-cells,” he said. “Cloning and embryonic research continue to have enormous scientific problems, and it’s also completely the wrong way to go ethically.”

In fact, ethically-derived stem cells cure and treat more than 70 diseases. For example, adult stem cells have been used successfully as an emergency heart-attack treatment, to repair damaged arteries, and in spinal treatments for paralysis. A team of MIT scientists also recently discovered a technique for preserving and cultivating adult stem cells outside the human body, which could make them even more useful in the future, according to the magazine Science Daily.

No claim of success from human cloning research has ever withstood scientific scrutiny.

David Freddoso

writes from Washington, D.C.