Member states of the United Nations have given their backing to a resolution recommending countries to ban all forms of human cloning, including that being carried out purely for research purposes.
However, although the proposed resolution was approved in a UN committee last Friday (18 February) by 71-35 votes, the fact that 43 countries abstained — including all Islamic countries — means that it is unlikely to carry significant political weight.
Furthermore, the proposed resolution, which will now be passed to the UN General Assembly for approval, falls far short of the international anti-cloning treaty that many opponents to cloning had been seeking.
Such a global ban, whose supporters had included the United States and the Vatican, would have included a ban on research using techniques of 'therapeutic' cloning intended to produce therapies for a range of diseases.
But supporters of such a move dropped their efforts last November, when it become clear that they were unlikely to carry the majority of UN members with them, and opted instead to support a non-binding resolution (see UN drops proposed cloning ban).
After last week's vote, both sides in the debate were claiming victory. A spokesman for the US State Department, Adam Ereli, described the fact that the United Nations was not taking action to endorse therapeutic and others forms of cloning as a "moderate success".
A spokesman for the US mission to the United Nations added that the vote implied that the international organisation was "stating very clearly that member states should adopt legislation outlining all cloning practices".
But Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, which had lobbied hard against the treaty, described the outcome as an "abject failure" for the foes of stem cell research.
Having already failed to secure a global ban, said Siegel, the opponents of cloning "could not even muster a simple majority to support their nonbinding declaration".
Critics of the resolution included China, which voted against its adoption and claimed that its language was "vague". A spokesperson for Singapore, which also cast a 'no' vote, argued that the resolution "does not capture the diversity of views which have been expressed on this important issue".
The resolution was adopted by the United Nations legal committee late on Friday after almost a week of debate in the committee. It urges UN member states to implement legislation to prohibit all forms of human cloning because they are "incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life".
It also calls on countries "to adopt the measures necessary to prohibit the application of genetic engineering techniques that may be contrary to human dignity".
Josephine Quintavalle, a spokeperson for the UK-based Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), which had lobbied in favour of the resolution, said that the committee's vote was "superb news" for those who felt it was hypocritical to ban reproductive cloning, but still permit therapeutic cloning.
"If cloning is abhorrent in principle, one cannot justify any form of compromise," she said.
But Siegel told SciDev.Net that the declaration lacks either precision or definition. "It is not a useful guide, and countries will set their own policies, which is what stem cell advocates wanted all the time."