U.N. Wrestles With a Total Ban on Cloning

Rival Proposals Divide Member-Nations

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NEW YORK, OCT. 11, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The United Nations is once more hearing arguments on a global ban against human cloning. A working group of the Legal Committee heard evidence on the matter last week. Hearings were not open to the public and a plenary meeting of the committee will take up the matter Oct. 20, according to a U.N. press release of Sept. 29.



The press release noted that some favor a two-step process in which reproductive cloning is banned immediately, while the more complicated question of therapeutic cloning is left for later. Others want both forms banned outright, since the technologies are virtually identical. During previous debates U.N. delegates disagreed on the scope of the proposed ban and the means to implement it.

After its week of deliberations, the U.N. working group remained deadlocked over whether to push for the total or partial ban, Reuters reported Oct. 3.

The news agency said that a group of some 40 nations, led by Costa Rica and the United States, continued to insist on a treaty banning both reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning. The latter procedure clones human embryos for medical research. By contrast, a group of 14 governments, most of them European but also including Japan, Brazil and South Africa, argued for a quick ban on reproductive cloning, but wanted to leave the issue of therapeutic cloning up to individual governments.

U.S. representative Ann Corkery argued that a treaty allowing experimental cloning "would essentially authorize the creation of a human embryo for the purpose of killing it to extract stem cells, thus elevating the value of research and experimentation above that of a human life."

Ethical questions

From the start, the Holy See delegation to the United Nations has called for a total ban on human cloning. Before the resumption of the recent hearings, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican semiofficial newspaper, published a note Aug. 7 explaining the Holy See's position. This was followed by a series of articles on cloning, written by Roberto Colombo of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The note explained that there is no essential difference in the scientific procedures used in reproductive or therapeutic cloning. In both, a human embryo is produced by cloning. The difference lies in the subsequent use of the embryo. In the case of reproduction the embryo is implanted in a uterus, whereas in therapeutic cloning the embryo is used for research, for example, the production of stem cells.

The note added that the Holy See does not oppose the production of stem cells from adults. Nor does it oppose the production of cells produced by means that do not entail the destructive use of living embryos, including those frozen. The note judged as licit the removal of cells or tissues from embryos that have died spontaneously.

On Sept. 29 Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations, delivered a speech to the working group in which he argued for a total ban on human cloning. "We do need to support the advancement of human biological sciences to the benefit of all members of the human family," he said. Yet, "the cloning of human embryos to produce stem cells for potential therapeutic use has not only failed to demonstrate any verifiable scientific promise, it also raises serious ethical questions."

Allowing therapeutic cloning "requires the production of millions of human embryos with the intention of destroying them as part of the process of using them for scientific research," Archbishop Migliore warned. He explained that even though the early human embryo may not yet be implanted in a womb, it is "nonetheless a human individual, with a human life, and evolving as an autonomous organism toward its full development. Destroying this embryo results in a deliberate suppression of an innocent human life."

Legislative background

In one of his articles, Roberto Colombo observed that many countries already have declared their desire for a ban on human cloning. Before the 1997 announcement of the first cloned sheep in Scotland, a number of countries had explicit or implicit prohibitions on human cloning. These included Brazil, Canada, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. After the sheep shock, other nations introduced legislation banning human cloning -- Argentina, China, Italy and the United States.

In January 1998 the Council of Europe added to the 1996 Oviedo Convention a protocol that strictly prohibited human cloning. And a Sept. 7, 2000, resolution by the European Parliament denounced human cloning and called for a U.N. global ban.

Last Nov. 20 the European Parliament voted 293-129 to repeat its call for a total ban on human cloning, even though many European governments favor only a partial ban by the United Nations. Declaring that "the life and dignity of all human beings, whatever their stage of development and state of health, must be respected," the parliamentarians added that they are "opposed to any form of research or use of life sciences and biotechnology that runs counter to this fundamental principle." Moreover the Parliament "repeats its insistence that there should be a universal and specific ban at the level of the United Nations on the cloning of human beings at all stages of formation and development."

Shortly afterward, however, the Belgian Senate passed a bill allowing the production of human embryos for medical research, Reuters reported Dec. 5. The bill allows therapeutic cloning, in order to produce cells for medical use and to develop expertise in fertility, sterility and organ transplants.

Months later, the House of Lords in Britain rejected a challenge to a law allowing therapeutic cloning, BBC reported March 13. Five Law Lords unanimously dismissed an appeal made by the Pro-Life Alliance. Parliament voted to allow cloning for research in January 2001.

A Pro-life Alliance spokesman said: "Future generations will look back in absolute horror at this government's wholesale disrespect for human dignity and will see the House of Lords' judgment today as an extremely sorry chapter in British judicial history."

The right to life

In one of his articles, Colombo explained how pressure to allow therapeutic cloning has grown in recent years. Researchers have insisted on the need for embryonic stem cells in order to carry out experiments that they claim hold the possibility of finding cures for serious illnesses. Colombo argued that the promises made in these claims have been "exaggerated, beyond any realistic forecast of the experts themselves, by interests at times foreign to its scientific and medical context."

Colombo observed that some have invoked the concept of the freedom of science to justify research using human embryos. Yet, freedom of research is not the same as the freedom of thought or scientific inquiry in general when the object of experimentation is a human subject, he argued.

Regarding the hopes held out for health benefits from research, Colombo explained that extracting cells from cloned embryos is a violation of the right to life of the human embryo, which is destroyed in the process.

"Preserving the rights to 'health' and to 'benefit from scientific progress' of those already born cannot be achieved by violating the right to life of those who are only in the very earliest stages of their prenatal development," Colombo wrote. Pro-lifers hope the United Nations is listening.