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  • UN treaty may outlaw 'reproductive' cloning

The first steps towards a global, legally-binding treaty outlawing human cloning for reproductive purposes have been taken by the United Nations (UN).

The move coincides with a renewed global debate on the ethics of human cloning following the announcement that researchers in the United States have created a human embryo clone — even though this is intended for therapeutic, and not reproductive, purposes.

On 19 November, the legal committee of the UN General Assembly approved a draft resolution calling for an international convention banning reproductive human cloning, which is described as “an attack on the dignity of the individual”.

The resolution had originally been proposed in August by France and Germany in a letter to the General Assembly. This move followed the announcement by an Italian fertility doctor, Severino Antinori, that he intended to clone a human baby by the end of the year.

The legal committee has now recommended that a committee, including experts on bioethics and genetics, should be set up to meet twice next year to define what should be included in an international convention.

Such a document, suggests the committee, would then be put to the General Assembly for approval in late 2002, allowing talks on the convention itself to begin in 2003.

Christian Much, legal adviser to Germany’s mission to the UN, has said that the initiative would be limited to human cloning for reproductive ends. Only this approach, according to Much, offers “a real chance to come rapidly to concrete results and to win the race against some irresponsible researchers”.

But some scientists are worried that a rigorous global ban on reproductive cloning could lead to wider restrictions on therapeutic cloning, the creation of cloned embryos solely to obtain stem cells for the treatment of a variety of diseases.

“The danger is in not keeping the issue specific to reproductive cloning,” says Harry Griffin, from the Roslin Institute in Scotland where Dolly — the first cloned sheep — was born in 1997. Anti-abortion groups, he says, may attempt to “muddy the waters to extend the ban to research on all human embryos”.

As it currently stands, however, the proposed UN ban would not affect the research that led to the creation of the first cloned human embryo, which was announced on 25 November by the US company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT).

ACT has been careful to draw a distinction between reproductive and therapeutic cloning, saying that it does not intend to ‘make babies’, but that the single, six-celled human embryo it has created will aid the development of novel treatment for degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and diabetes.

But the research remains controversial, not least because a cloned embryo, even if initially only created for research purposes, could theoretically be implanted into a woman’s womb and grow into a baby.

US President George Bush has criticised the research on moral grounds, and has called on the Senate to act on legislation approved this year by the House of Representatives, which would outlaw the research announced by the company (the use of federal funding for such research is already banned in the United States).

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, is scrambling to fill a legal loophole exposed this month when the High Court ruled that existing legislation on embryo experimentation does not cover cloned embryos created by nuclear replacement, and that human cloning for reproductive purposes using this technique is not, therefore, illegal.

Emergency legislation is now being pushed through the British parliament to outlaw the procedure.

Griffin, meanwhile, warns against banning all forms of human cloning “on the back of immediate moral outrage”, and calls for a “more logical, structured and systematic debate on the issues”.

“You might be outraged, and I might be outraged,” he says. “But if you come across someone like Antinori who thinks that cloning is not such a bad thing, then those people who are basing their argument on ‘outrage’ or ‘human dignity’ — an even more amorphous concept — will have problems justifying their position.”

© SciDev.Net 2001

See also:

UN press release
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