The United Nations General Assembly has agreed to postpone until its next session, which starts in a year's time, a vote on a proposed treaty outlawing all forms of human cloning.
But it has rejected a proposal, narrowly approved last month by its legal committee, that any such vote should be delayed for two years in a bid to reconcile differences between supporters and opponents of so-called 'therapeutic cloning'.
There is almost unanimous support around the world for a global ban on human reproductive cloning. But many researchers are keen to allow therapeutic cloning to proceed, given the potential medical applications arising from research carried on cells taken from cloned human embryos.
The November decision, which will allow such research to continue — at least for the short term — had therefore been met with relief in the scientific community.
But this turned to consternation last week when it turned out that Costa Rica, which is leading the campaign (backed by the United States and the Catholic Church) to ban both types of cloning, suggested that it might seek to have the committee's vote overturned by the whole general assembly (see UN faces new move to ban all human cloning).
An emergency resolution, for example, was passed last Friday at a meeting in Mexico of the InterAcademy Panel (IAP), attended by representatives of the world's science academies, calling on the UN General Assembly to respect the legal committee's decision and delay a convention on human cloning until 2005.
Speaking in support of the IAP resolution, Lord May, president of Britain's Royal Society, described this as "a sensible decision in view of the ongoing disagreements about whether a convention should include a ban on therapeutic cloning".
He condemned countries that, he claimed, were engaged in "desperation tactics" by seeking to rush through a ban "that would not respect the right of individual countries to reach their own decisions about whether to outlaw therapeutic cloning." Countries that support this position include Russia and China.
Costa Rica had been lobbying other supporters of a total ban to have the General Assembly reject the legal committee's decisions and seek an immediate treaty. However when it became clear that it was unlikely to collect sufficient votes for such a move, it proposed a resolution merely saying that the issue should be raised again next year — a compromise position that was adopted without opposition.
Although the United States is reported not to have backed Costa Rica's bid for a quick decision by the general assembly, its officials say that its position on human cloning has not changed.
"We continue to work for a total ban," US spokesman Richard Grenell said in an interview with the Associated Press. "We were pleased to join the consensus today on a one-year delay in order to give Islamic nations the time they requested to consider fully the moral and ethical issues involved."
Opponents of a total ban have expressed their relief at the outcome, but have promised to keep up their pressure to block a total ban. "The world was on the verge of the worst setback to science since medieval times," says Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetic Policy Institute, which has lobbied hard to allow medical research using embryo cells to go ahead.
"Millions of sick people were given hope with the UN's action today," says Siegel. "What we need is a legal framework so that ethical scientific research for cures can proceed."