In this week's BioNews, we report on the latest instalment in the ongoing saga of the United Nation (UN)'s deliberations on cloning. What started out, in 2001, as a proposed treaty to ban human reproductive cloning has ended up as a non-binding declaration calling on nations to ban all forms of cloning. Or maybe not - according to some supporters of therapeutic cloning research (in which stem cells are taken from cloned human embryos to develop new disease treatments), the wording of the declaration is deliberately vague. Yet opponents of research on human embryos are also claiming the UN's latest pronouncement as a victory. So, in all this apparent confusion, what has the UN achieved after almost four years of considering cloning?
The declaration, approved by the UN's legal committee last week, seeks to 'to prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life'. South Korea, one of several countries in which therapeutic cloning research is already taking place, intends to continue with its search for new cures for conditions such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease. According to the South Korean health minister Kim Heon-joo, the language of the declaration is vague enough to allow embryo stem cell research to take place. Kim says that his country will continue to allow such research, even if the UN's General Assembly adopts the declaration. Other countries that have already passed national laws permitting therapeutic cloning - including the UK and Belgium - have also said they will ignore any UN ban on the research.
In 2001, all the UN member nations were agreed in principle on an international treaty banning the cloning of human beings - reproductive cloning. But before it came to a vote, an alternative, US-backed proposal was put forward, which sought to ban cloning for any purpose. As President Bush has discovered following the implementation of his national policy on embryo stem cell research, the issues surrounding therapeutic cloning arouse strong feelings on both sides of the debate. Many families affected by serious diseases feel that the research offers real hope for new treatments, but others believe that the human embryo, as a potential person, should not be used in this way. The arguments surrounding therapeutic cloning, like any form of embryo research, touch on difficult and highly contentious ideas about when life begins. Not surprisingly, the new proposal split the UN, and it has failed to agree on any form of human cloning treaty.
Instead, the UN focused its efforts on coming up with a declaration - which will not be legally binding - that will be open to interpretation by individual nations. But this will achieve very little. It fails to stop 'cowboy cloners' aiming to produce the world's first cloned human despite widespread condemnation from the vast majority of scientists - the original motivation behind the UN's intervention. Individual countries will continue to regulate therapeutic cloning as they see fit, but under the shadow of a perceived international consensus that such research is morally troubling. In fact, as the UK ambassador Emyr Jones Parry pointed out, due to the number of abstentions, more countries failed to support the declaration than actively backed it. Rather than a consensus, this is more an opportunity for those opposed to embryo research to claim the moral high ground. Given the irreconcilable differences of opinion in this area, perhaps it would have been better for everyone if the UN had steered clear of cloning altogether.