The United Nations (UN) has adopted a non-binding declaration that prohibits 'all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life'. The ban was passed by the general assembly on Tuesday, by 84 votes to 34 with 37 abstentions. Many countries, including the UK, voted against the declaration because it does not explicitly allow embryo cloning for research purposes. The UK, and other nations where therapeutic cloning is permitted, say it will make no difference to research already being carried out. However, the move is being claimed as a victory by the Bush administration, which pushed for a worldwide ban on all forms of cloning.
All member nations of the UN were agreed on the terms of a treaty, first proposed in 2001, which would have banned reproductive cloning. However, member states were then divided between this, and the competing US-lead proposal that sought to ban cloning for all purposes. This would have included 'therapeutic cloning' - cloning human embryos to develop stem cell therapies for a range of incurable diseases. The UN abandoned its attempts to agree upon a cloning ban in November 2004, and decided instead to draw up a declaration, which will not be legally binding. The text of this declaration was approved by the UN's legal committee last month, by 71 votes to 35, with 43 abstentions, and has now been passed by the general assembly.
Therapeutic cloning research is legal in several countries, including the UK and the US. Reproductive cloning is illegal in the UK under the Human Reproductive Cloning Act, passed in November 2001. Health Secretary John Reid said that the UK would vote against the UN declaration because it calls on states to ban all forms of cloning, adding 'this would deny many patients with illnesses like Parkinson's disease, chronic heart disease and juvenile diabetes, the potential of effective treatments'. He said it was 'a shame' the UN could not agree to a ban on reproductive cloning only, 'simply because a small group of countries intransigently refused to allow individual countries to make up their own minds on therapeutic cloning'.
France, Norway, Japan, China and South Korea also voted against the ban. Reid said the declaration would make no difference to stem cell research being carried out in the UK, a position echoed by several other countries where such research is already permitted. The US and many predominantly Roman Catholic countries voted in favour of the declaration. In a White House statement, George Bush said that he applauded the 'strong vote' of the UN, adding 'human life must not be created for the purpose of destroying it'. He also said that he now looks forward 'to working with members of Congress to enact legislation to ban all human cloning in the United States'. Therapeutic cloning research is currently permitted in the private sector in the US, but no federal funds are available for human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research that involves creating new embryo stem cell lines, which rules out therapeutic cloning.
Many Islamic nations voted to abstain from the UN vote, reportedly on the grounds that there was no consensus on whether ES cell research is a 'valid medical pursuit' or the 'destruction of human life'. The UK ambassador to the UN, Emyr Jones Parry, called the newly adopted statement 'an ambiguous declaration which may sow confusion about the acceptability of this important field of research'. Bernard Siegel, head of the Genetics Policy Institute - a lobby group that pushed for a ban on reproductive cloning only - claims the declaration is simply an effort to 'mask' the UN's failure to impose a worldwide ban on therapeutic cloning last November.