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Print version ISSN 0042-9686
Bull World Health Organ vol.81 n.11 Genebra Nov. 2003
Nations fail to agree on extent of human cloning ban
St. Moritz, Switzerland
A UN treaty to ban human cloning faces an uncertain future after nations failed in October to reach a consensus on the ban's terms. Delegates agreed that the treaty should prohibit the creation of cloned embryos to produce babies. But they deadlocked on whether the prohibition should extend to so-called "therapeutic" or "research" cloning.
An "Interacademy Panel," made up of 63 national academies, signed a statement supporting a worldwide ban on human cloning. "What we said in the Interacademy Panel statement is that there should be a universal ban on reproductive cloning, but the question of whether therapeutic cloning research should go on ought to be left to individual nations," said Richard Gardner, Chairman of the United Kingdom's Royal Society working group on cloning and stem cells.
While China, Japan, South Africa and most of the European nations present agreed with the Interacademy Panel's view, more than 40 other nations did not, and instead endorsed Costa Rica's proposal for a ban on human cloning for any purpose. "A ban that permits embryonic clones to be created and forbids them to be implanted in utero legally requires the destruction of nascent human life, a morally abhorrent prospect," according to a US position statement.
US officials cite recent reports of stem cells derived from adult cells as evidence that stem cell research can proceed without the use of embryos. "It is clear that there may be other routes to developing new treatment therapies, including using adult stem cells that do not pose the same threat to human dignity as cloning of human embryos," US delegate, Ann Corkery, told the panel.
However, the Interacademy Panel statement disputes the notion that adult stem cells can substitute for embryonic ones, and Gardner says that cloned embryos might actually yield the biggest scientific advances by answering basic questions about the genetic underpinnings of embryonic development.
Both "reproductive" and "therapeutic" cloning begin with scientists removing the genetic material from an egg cell and replacing it with the genetic material from an adult cell. When nudged into dividing, the manipulated cell can continue to split and develop into an embryo. Reproductive cloning would then require implanting the cloned embryo into a woman's uterus where it could develop into a baby.
During therapeutic cloning, by contrast, the cloned cell is prevented from developing into an advanced-stage embryo and is instead turned into cell lines for research use. Embryos produced through cloning could be used to generate stem cells — cells that are capable of differentiating into a wide variety of specialized cell types.
Given the widespread agreement on a reproductive cloning ban, some nations supported a two-step approach that would immediately ban reproductive cloning while allowing more time to discuss the question of therapeutic cloning. However, those in favour of the Costa Rican proposal refused such a plan and continued to push for a total ban.
As a result of this dispute, the treaty's outcome remains unresolved. The working group's report was to be discussed before the UN's Sixth (Legal) Committee on 20 and 21 October, but an agreement appeared unlikely, said Alex Capron, Director of WHO's Department of Ethics, Trade, Human Rights, and Health Law.
In the wake of the UN impasse, the Human Cloning Policy Institute (HCPO), a US-based group of scientists and law experts, has called on the UN General Assembly to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice declaring human reproductive cloning a "crime against humanity." The outcome of the HCPO drive is unclear, but one thing is certain: the cloning debate will not be settled anytime soon.