The committee previously met from Feb. 25 to March 1; press reports indicated that any ban is still a long way off. A Sept. 23 press release by the committee said its work is in the preliminary stage of identifying the legal issues that would be covered by the convention.
At the end of its February session the committee said the reproductive cloning of human beings is "a troubling and unethical development in biotechnology. ... It raised moral, religious, ethical and scientific concerns and had far-reaching implications for human dignity."
If the United Nations goes ahead with the ban, "this is extraordinarily significant, especially since [the U.N.] has never before had any kind of a treaty covering a bioethics issue," said George Annas, an ethics professor at Boston University, in a USA Today report on Sept. 23.
But the session this week was marred by disagreement over the type of ban to be implemented. According to the latest Friday Fax, of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, France and Germany are arguing in favor of a ban only on cloning for reproduction, and not for research ends. More than 20 nations, including other European Union members, the United States and the Vatican, have spoken out in favor of prohibiting cloning for any purpose whatsoever.
Concerns over possible human cloning arise in part from claims by Italian doctor Severino Antinori, who has declared that he is already working on cloning babies.
Scientists say that any attempt to create a human clone would be dangerous, BBC noted Sept. 24. The most famous animal clone, Dolly the sheep, was the only success in 247 attempts. Moreover, many cloned animal fetuses develop with severe abnormalities and spontaneously abort, often putting the mother's life at risk. Clones that do survive often suffer severe health problems and malformations.
Antinori says he has found a way of screening embryos to cut the number of failed pregnancies, but other doctors doubt such detection is possible, BBC reported.
Damage to human rights
Three professors in the area of health -- George Annas, Lori Andrews and Rosario Isasi -- recently published an article supporting the idea of a global ban on cloning. The article, "Protecting the Endangered Human: Toward an International Treaty Prohibiting Cloning and Inheritable Alterations," appeared in the American Journal of Law and Medicine (Volume 28, Nos. 2 and 3).
The authors reject both cloning and creating babies with modified genetic material. They also reject the idea of scientists or commercial companies deciding whether to alter the fundamental structure of what it means to be a human. Rather, they say, the appropriate forum for such a decision is the United Nations.
Their reasoning commences with the affirmation that all humans are fundamentally the same, with equal dignity and rights. Cloning and genetic alterations "can be seen as crimes against humanity of a unique sort," they warn.
As well, a real danger exists that children produced with predetermined genetic characteristics may end up deprived of their human rights. This fear is not ungrounded, the authors note, given that genetic science has a history of committing abuses against human rights. And genetic modification that leads to the creation of a new human subspecies could also lead to genocide or slavery, they warn.
The international treaty they propose would require each nation to outlaw cloning or genetic modification of humans. They also urge the establishment of standards to regulate the work done by research centers in this field. And they recommend that an international body monitor compliance with the treaty -- though they admit that setting up satisfactory monitoring and enforcement mechanisms is the hardest part in implementing a global ban.
Their proposal doesn't stop there. They also suggest other procedures that should be prohibited. Among these: the gestation of a human being outside the mother's body; the transfer of a human embryo into an animal; the creation of embryos solely for research purposes; and transplanting reproductive material from animals into humans. They also express concern about the patenting of human genes.
Regarding human cloning, the authors observe that "virtually every scientist in the world with an opinion believes it is unsafe to attempt a human pregnancy with a cloned embryo." Many scientists also believe that cloning or genetic alterations will never be safe because the results will always be inherently unpredictable. Safety issues alone, they argue, "provide sufficient scientific justification for the treaty."
The three authors dismiss the argument used by Antinori and others which defends cloning as an aid to infertile couples. They contend, rather, that this view in fact ignores the rights and interests of the women and children involved. Moreover, there is no evidence that humans have ever reproduced by asexual means, so it is a doubtful claim that cloning can be seen as human reproduction, say the authors of the American Journal of Law and Medicine article.
Cloning also raises a number of troubling consequences, the article continues. The child would be the genetic twin of the parent, a relationship that has never before existed in human society. More troubling, a genetic replica of an infertile parent would itself be sterile and could only "reproduce" by cloning.
Slippery slope to eugenics?
Proponents of cloning claim that it is a part of scientific progress that will benefit humans. But the authors warn that human cloning, combined with genetic manipulation, could lead to a new eugenics trend: "designer children." If such attempts were successful, a new "post-human" species might emerge that looks down on "normal" humans as inferior, thus setting the stage for serious conflicts between the two groups.
The authors further argue that the greatest accomplishments of humans have not been scientific but political and social, that is, the development of human rights and democracy. "Science cannot tell us what we should do, or even what our goals are; therefore, humans must give direction to science," they insist. A ban on human cloning and genetic alteration "seeks to preserve democracy, freedom and universal human rights for all members of the human species."
As the U.N. committee continued its hearings this week, the South Korean government announced it would ban human cloning, UPI reported Sept. 24. South Korea currently has no effective rules on cloning. This has raised fears the country could be used as a laboratory for controversial research.
The Korean Parliament is expected to approved the government's proposal next month, said Kwon Joon-wook, a medical policy chief at the Heath Ministry. The legislation would also ban artificial hybrid fertilization between human beings and animals and the genetic treatment of fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses. Further, it would outlaw embryonic stem cell research and the use of individual genetic information for the purpose of education, employment and insurance.
"The safekeeping of present and succeeding generations of human beings and the advancement of fundamental human rights is critical to the work of the U.N.," declared Vatican representative Archbishop Renato Martino in his address this week to the committee. Preventing human cloning will help preserve those rights.