It’s a timid new world. Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. cloned the first human embryo on October 13, 2001. The announcement was made yesterday and politicians are already whimpering and running for cover.

You see, ever since scientists announced the cloning of Dolly in 1997, U.S. politicians have generally agreed, to the point of grandstanding at times, that cloning a human would be an unconscionable and unethical act.

They just never got around to outlawing it.

The closest the government came was last summer, when the House of Representatives voted to ban human cloning and install penalties of 10 years in prison and a $1 million dollar fine. However, the measure was never taken up in the Senate. Hence, no law.

Clinton also passed a moratorium on the use of federal funds for human cloning research. But the moratorium does not apply to biotech companies like ACT.

At this point members of Congress are still gathering pejoratives to refer to ACT’s experiment. Most of them are not very well informed.

If Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle speaks for his constituents, they are confused at best. In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Daschle said that he supports human cloning for research purposes but remains strongly against cloning for the purpose of human replication.

He said that he did not yet understand ACT’s research but, “It’s disconcerting, frankly. I think it’s going in the wrong direction.”

Since ACT’s cloning experiment was solely for research purposes and the company has no plans to engage in cloning for the purpose of human replication, it is unclear what, if anything, Daschle was thinking.

Cloning for any purpose certainly raises disconcerting questions, so what was the purpose of this experiment? To save lives, say scientists at ACT.

The cloned embryo produced by the company was never intended to grow to maturity. It was stopped at the six-cell stage of its development. The purpose behind it was to produce stem cells.

When Bush declared protected stem cell lines, he ignored quite a few factors that would make them viable. Some of the stem cell lines were grown on cultures of mouse cells, which concerns many scientists as to their safety for medical use. Other lines were produced in laboratories in foreign countries where funding was sparse and scientists were likely to have cut corners.

The National Institute of Health published a paper earlier this year declaring that the protected stem cell lines would be insufficient for useful research because many of them were proving to be not viable.

The paper was published on Sept. 11. No one paid attention.

So now scientists are in a quandary. They have in their hands a potential treatment or cure for diabetes, strokes, cancer, AIDS and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and no legal means to pursue it.

Stem cells come from embryos – and if scientists can’t use the embryos slated for destruction in fertility clinics, some of them, it seems, have determined to make their own.

In addition to providing a source of embryos outside of those produced by the union of sperm and eggs, cloning could be used to produce stem cells that would be fashioned into organs genetically identical to their recipients. Thousands of people die waiting for organs each year. Such a system could alleviate the desperate need for organs and eliminate many of the difficulties of organ rejection.

With the facts in, it won’t be long before the battle lines are drawn. This is not a column on the ethical concerns surrounding human embryo cloning. Those would fill many newspapers this size. Instead, it is a plea for you, members of the public with access to higher education, to inform yourselves on the issue. Your representatives will determine the permissibility of this research, and if they are no more informed than Daschle, the nation’s medical establishment could end up in big trouble.

Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science and technology editor. His column, Red Tape, runs on Mondays.