BOSTON - Never again will I underestimate the commitment of the U.S. House of Representatives to homeland security.
While the whole country is on an emotional toggle switch, alternating between orange and yellow alert, the representatives nevertheless have taken time out to protect our fair country from another breed of international criminals: patients.
Last week, the House passed a ban against all forms of human cloning. Not just against reproductive cloning of embryos to make babies, but also against therapeutic cloning for research to cure diseases.
The bill, if passed by the Senate, would make it illegal for scientists, those biological terrorists, to work on this promising research within our borders. But just to make the picture complete, it would also turn patients into criminals if they imported such medical therapy from abroad.
Don't you feel safer already? Just imagine some latter-day patients arriving back in the country. Not only would they have to remove their shoes and have their carry-ons checked for dirty bombs, they'd also have their bodies checked for dirty cures. If their Alzheimer's or Parkinson's treatment, their heart disease or spinal cord cure came from cloning research, they'd be liable for a $1 million fine and 10 years in jail.
How would you like to be the person arresting Christopher Reeve at the gate?
For some time, there's been nearly unanimous agreement against treating people like Dollys. Many of us have been calling for a ban on reproductive cloning. But that ban on babies has been thwarted by those who insist on criminalizing medicine as well.
As bioethicist Art Caplan says, "The House vote reflects just one thing: the desire to get legal status for an embryo. This is the back-door way to get it done. They want to get it into law that you can't destroy an embryo because it is a person."
Cloning itself involves taking an egg, removing its nucleus and adding the nucleus of an adult cell - say a skin cell - back into it. It's hoped that the tailor-made stem cells could eventually be used in regenerative medicine. But the cloned embryo can't become a baby unless it's transplanted into a womb.
Modern science sees an embryo as a potential life or a blueprint for life. To say that a blueprint is a human being, says Mr. Caplan, is like saying that the lumber and nails at Home Depot are a house.
Nevertheless, an embryo has a much higher moral status than lumber and nails. No one is suggesting that we clone embryos for frivolous research into, say, perfume or face cream. But what about research that may alleviate suffering and illness?
Those who oppose this research talk ruefully about "creating a life to destroy it," but what about saving a life? Does the value of an embryo in a petri dish trump that of a child with a spinal cord injury in a wheelchair? Enough to turn a patient into an expatriate?
If the House bill becomes law it will be a legal edge to revisit Roe vs. Wade and in-vitro fertilization and genetic testing. If cooler heads prevail in the Senate - which last year voted for a cloning ban on babies, not medicine - then we are likely back to the status quo. An unregulated stalemate.
Abortion politics is already costing us our lead in this cutting-edge research. We've seen the beginning of a brain drain of American scientists to Britain. Countries from China to Sweden are moving ahead under the strict ethical regulations of an international agreement we refuse to sign.
Meanwhile at home, President Bush came out in favor of the House bill, saying it would "ensure protection of human life as the frontiers of science expand." But this is where those expanding "frontiers of science" are stopped cold: right at the borders of the United States.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.