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UN committee backs human cloning ban

Stem cell advocates blast 'political' vote

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A UN general assembly committee has backed a proposal to ban all forms of human cloning. The "nonbinding statement" - proposed by Honduras, backed by the US and carried by 71 votes to 35 with 43 abstentions - will now go before the full UN assembly, Reuters reports. The decision comes at the end of four years' heated debate into the matter.

The issue of human cloning, or cloning of human embryos to obtain stem cells, is deeply divisive. Various countries have already gone on record as to how they will vote when the committee's statement comes before the UN. The three main viewpoints can be summarised with the following examples:

  • Honduras, the US and Costa Rica are opposed to this research on any grounds because they view it as the taking of a human life.
  • Opponents of the proposal - including Belgium, Britain and Singapore - say the statement "would have no impact on their practice of co-called therapeutic stem cell research", although British delegate Gavin Watson said he voted against the statement which "could be interpreted as a call for a total ban on all forms of human cloning".
  • Islamic nations have said they will abstain in the absence of a consensus.

President Bush's opposition to human cloning and stem cell research is no secret. In 2001 he issued an executive order "restricting federal funding for stem cell research to only those batches of the cells that existed at the time", provoking various members of Congress to last week introduce bills aimed at side-stepping the ban.

In Britain, meanwhile, scientists recently called for £100m to establish a stem cell research foundation. This came hot on the heels of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority decision to grant Professor Ian Wilmut (the "creator" of Dolly the sheep) a license to create stem cells from cloned embryos to facilitate a study into Motor Neuron Disease.

For its part, Belgium attempted to introduce amendments into the committee's draft propsal to make it more palatable to stem cell research advocates. The assembly's legal committee rejected the compromise. Belgium's ally Britain responded by calling the proposal a "weak, non-binding political statement". Emyr Jones Parry, Britain's UN ambassador, noted: "The number of states that failed to support it is greater than the number that backed it."

Singaporean Ambassador, Vanu Gopala Menon, agreed. He lamented that "a common objective of prohibiting human cloning was hijacked in a misguided bid to widen this ban to include important [stem cell] research."

And here's the rub. Italy proposed a nonbinding declaration calling on nations to pass laws "to prohibit any attempts to create human life through cloning processes and any research intended to achieve that aim" - a wording which alludes to widespread revulsion to the concept of cloning human beings in the manner of The Boys from Brazil, without completely rejecting the possibility of stem cell research. However, "pro-life" nations insist that simply cloning a human embryo in order to extract stem cells is the creation of human life, and do not acknowledge a distinction between cloning a full-blown person and a foetus which will be destroyed after it has served its purpose.

The same argument (foetus = human being, with all the associated rights) is the mainstay of anti-abortion activists, some of whom form part of a coalition of US pressure groups highly delighted with the result of the vote: "This declaration represents a significant step forward in advancing respect for human life," they said in a statement. "Cloning opponents welcomed the UN's resolution and look forward to member-states fulfilling their international obligations."

What those "international obligations" turn out to be depends on the outcome of the increasingly bitter battle between those who claim that stem cell research is vital to the advancement of medical knowledge, and those who are simply having none of it. Time will tell. ®

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