This weeks BioNews reports on renewed attempts by supporters of therapeutic cloning to stop the research being banned worldwide. The United Nations (UN) will again be considering two competing resolutions on cloning when it meets this October: one banning all uses of the technology, and one which would ban human reproductive cloning, but leave the regulation of therapeutic cloning down to individual countries. Originally proposed as a deterrent to 'cowboy cloners' such as the Raelians, Panos Zavos and Severino Antinori, the proposed UN treaty on cloning could potentially end up also banning embryo cloning for research purposes. How did this happen?
The proposal for a UN treaty on human reproductive cloning came from France and Germany, in 2001. But by the time the legal committee considered the proposed ban in 2003, an alternative proposal had been put forward, sponsored by Costa Rica and supported by the US. It called for a total ban on all uses of SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) technology, the cloning technique used to create Dolly the sheep. This ban would encompass therapeutic cloning, the proposed use of cells from cloned early embryo cells to develop new disease treatments. A third resolution to delay any decision on the issue for two years, backed by a coalition of Islamic nations, eventually won by a narrow margin. However, this was later reduced to one year, following a last minute effort by supporters of the total ban to force a second vote on cloning.
The US is pushing hard for an international ban on all forms of cloning, yet it has not banned either therapeutic cloning research (except for federally funded scientists) or reproductive cloning at the national level. In the US, as in many countries worldwide, religious beliefs concerning the status of the embryo have made this area a highly controversial one to regulate. Given this diversity of opinion, it is surely impossible that a worldwide consensus on therapeutic cloning research could ever be reached.
Even if a total UN cloning ban were imposed, scientists in countries such as the UK, where tightly regulated therapeutic cloning research is already permitted, have already said they will not sign such a treaty. Surely it would be better, as Richard Gardner of the UK's Royal Society said this week, to pass a UN convention that all countries would endorse. And, as he also said, a clear distinction by the UN between reproductive and therapeutic cloning would provide countries with 'invaluable guidance in passing effective legislation'.
Continued attempts to regulate therapeutic cloning research at an international or even European level are likely to end in stalemate. The only winners in this situation would be individuals bent on dangerous and irresponsible attempts at cloning human beings: the very people the UN is trying to stop.