Stanford University announced in December it is creating an Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. An anonymous donor gave $12 million to found what will be the first major institution in the country to produce human clones for medical research. Though Stanford’s announcement was controversial, its plans are completely legal; although bills to ban cloning have made their way to Congress, there is no federal prohibition on cloning in the U.S.

Scientists at the institute plan to use stem cell biology to develop treatments for life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease. They will also develop a new series of embryonic stem cell lines to represent those genetically related diseases and make them available to investigators. The $12 million will go towards a fundraising drive for the centre’s planned $120 million cost.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last year that would have banned the creation of human embryo clones and their transfer to the womb. It never passed the Senate, however, and now, with a new Congress in session, the bill has to be reintroduced in both House and Senate. A competing bill will likely be introduced banning human cloning to produce children, but allowing human cloning for biomedical research. President Bush in 2001 limited federal funding for stem cell research, but did not ban it.

President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics made its first report last July and the majority of its members recommended a ban on all attempts at cloning to produce children, and a four-year national moratorium on cloning for biomedical research. The council’s recommendations have not been implemented.

In the absence of such a ban or moratorium, Stanford’s planned research is perfectly legal. “We think it’s urgently necessary that Congress address this issue soon or we are going to pick up the papers one of these days and see what President Bush called human embryo farms open for business,” Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, told The Interim. He reported that there are plans to reintroduce the bill in the House, with 100 co-sponsors: “We are hoping for action in both houses in the not-too-distant future.”

But getting a new bill passed in both the House and Senate is not a given. Johnson noted that though the public is against cloning, there has been some serious opposition to a ban. “There is the biotech industry itself, which is a very formidable lobby,” he said. “And a number of patient advocacy groups have been persuaded that this is promising or necessary, Christopher Reeve being one of the most prominent spokesmen.”

These groups know the public is against cloning, and so have engaged in an “active disinformation campaign,” Johnson warned. Stanford institute head Dr. Irving Weissman and some other cloners “are attempting to conceal their activities by employing verbal smokescreens.”

The university claimed in a statement that the research “is not cloning human embryos.” But human embryos are created and destroyed by the process. Scientists make a distinction between “reproductive cloning” and “therapeutic cloning.” In both cases, an embryo is created. In the former, the embryo is meant to be brought to term; in the latter, stem cells are extracted and the embryo is then destroyed.

Those against cloning argue that therapeutic cloning should be called by the more direct term of “human embryonic cloning.” The university said this term might cause “confusion, especially among the lay public.” They preferred the phrase “nuclear transplantation (or transferal) to produce human pluripotent stem cell lines.”

Stanford even posted a statement on its website that said the President’s Council on Bioethics had declared “human embryonic cloning … an inaccurate and misleading term.” But while the council was split on policy recommendations, it was unanimous in stating that “cloned human embryo” was the proper term for the process’s result. “We have resisted the temptation to solve the moral questions by artful redefinition or by denying to some morally crucial element a name that makes clear that there is a moral question to be faced,” reads the report. Council chairman Leon Kass demanded a correction, and the sentence was removed.

“Stanford has decided to proceed with cloning research without public scrutiny and deliberation, and has hurt the cause of public understanding of this subject by its confusion of the issue,” Kass said.