The State of California has become the first in the union to explicitly authorize embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) and to establish procedures to fund the experiments with tax dollars. On one level, this bill is primarily symbolic since ESCR is not against any federal law (although several state statutes bar the practice). On another, it is election year politics intended in a highly Democrat state to serve as a stark contrast with the limitations on federal funding of ESCR put in place last year by Republican President George W. Bush. And with California bleeding red ink from its budget, it is unliklely that substantial funds will be available for the research any time soon. Still, it is likely that some in-state facilities will one day receive taxpayer dollars to fund this research, which remains highly controversial because it requires the destruction of human embryos.

In other related news, the international effort to outlaw all human cloning is having some success. Australia and South Korea have both legally banned human cloning, whether to produce children or for biomedical research. Taiwan also has barred human cloning and Canada is soon likely to follow suit.

That is all well and good. However, the respite from human cloning has not affected the drive to experiment on embryos. Indeed, the forming international political consensus seems to be to permit ESCR on embryos left over from IVF procedures, while at the same time, barring–at least for now–human cloning. This is precisely the approach taken by Australia, South Korea, and soon, by Canada.

Such policies appear to restrain human cloning. But in the long run, they may make human cloning more likely. The reason is this: ESCR is a primary gateway to human cloning. Because researchers fear that a patient’s body would reject embryonic stem cells in the same way it rejects a transplanted organ, many contend that it will be necessary to manufacture a clone embryo of each patient from which to extract embryonic stem cells. The theory is that since most of the DNA from such an embryo would be nearly identical to the patient, his or her body would accept the injected clone embryonic stem cell tissues.

Thus, the anti-cloning/pro ESCR approach may actually lead, as a logical next step, to human cloning. This isn’t merely speculative. Four nations, which permit ESCR, now also allow human cloning for biomedical research to look into that very approach: The People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, and Israel.

Unfortunately, the United States has not been able to exert much leadership in the area of human cloning. While President Bush is seeking a United Nations ban on all human cloning and a bill to outlaw all human cloning passed the House of Representatives last year, the issue has stalled in the United States Senate with little prospect for a breakthrough before the election. Thus with the exception of a handful of state bans, such as in Iowa and Michigan, human cloning, both for biomedical research and to produce children, appears to be perfectly legal in the United States.

Wesley J. Smith, a special consultant to the CBC, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.