Jersey's brave new world

Posted: Dec 15, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The lame-duck New Jersey State Assembly is poised today (Monday) to pass a bill members of President Bush's Council on Bioethics contend will permit human cloning. This manipulation plows new ground in the struggle over whether there should be moral limits on science's relentless thrust. With federal anti-cloning legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate, the Garden State takes the first step toward a brave new world.

This bill, passed a year ago by the state Senate, was set to roar through the Assembly by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in February. It was abruptly pulled from the floor after my column of Feb. 5 pointed out a national precedent would be established in Trenton. Legislative leaders determined to lie low until after the 2003 state elections, then bring back the bill before newly elected legislators are sworn in Jan. 8.

In pressing for this week's vote, the bill's sponsors misrepresent prominent Republicans as supporters. Mostly, they operate by stealth. The bill comes up in the holiday season nearly two years before the Assembly members must face re-election. The action is to be taken by a legislative body where 11 out of 80 members are lame ducks who will not sit in the next session.

Just what they are voting on is garbled. The bill asserts that cloning a human being is a "first degree" crime, a prohibition harped on by the measure's proponents. In fact, this only prohibits making a baby through nine months of gestation followed by childbirth.

Actually, the legislation permits "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT), which the President's Council unanimously calls an authorization for "creation of new human beings by cloning." The council's official report asserts "the initial product" of SCNT is "a living (one-celled) cloned human embryo." The process intends "to produce just such an entity: one that is alive (rather than non-living), one that is human (rather than non-human or animal)." In short, New Jersey is about to legalize a human cloning technique that effectively is exempted from its disingenuous criminal prohibition.

Democratic Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen, deputy majority leader and SCNT's principal sponsor, last week sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to fellow Assembly members asking support for "stem cell research legislation" to fight any number of diseases. Cohen claimed backing from "a wide variety of notables, including those with a conservative philosophy." He cited Nancy Reagan, Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and John McCain, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. The implication that any of them endorses Cohen's bill is a canard.

Cohen has distributed a letter written by Mrs. Reagan to Hatch in which she favors "new legislation to allow the ethical use of therapeutic cloning" which might in the future protect families from sharing pain inflicted on her because of Alzheimer's disease. She does not address the New Jersey bill and obviously is unfamiliar with it.

Hatch is more responsible than any other single senator for blocking Sen. Sam Brownback's federal anti-cloning legislation, but he cannot properly be called a backer of Cohen's bill. His aides told this column that Hatch would not support any bill permitting implantation of a cloned embryo or development of a clone for more than 14 days, both of which are permitted by the New Jersey bill. As for McCain, his staff told us: "We have not endorsed any cloning bill in New Jersey."

It is even more absurd to place Tommy Thompson in Jersey's Brave New World. Asserting the president desires anti-cloning legislation, the secretary added that "the administration could not support any measure purporting to ban 'reproductive' cloning while authorizing 'research' cloning."

As the bill's contents and supporters are obscured, advocates have not encouraged full debate. When the Newark Star-Ledger blamed me for helping "stir up enough criticism to keep the bill from passing," New Jersey Right to Life asked the newspaper to print a letter to Gov. James McGreevey from four members of the President's Council asserting that the bill "threatens to make New Jersey a haven for . . . human fetal farming." The editors replied they would "pass." The issue has not been fully explored as the lame-duck Assembly takes a fateful step.