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The United Nations is being asked again this week to draft a global treaty outlawing human cloning. While a treaty banning efforts to reproduce human individuals is needed, it is better not to have a treaty than to have a bad one.

There was both a tragic and a timely element in the way that last week's death of the Hollywood actor Christopher Reeves, best known for his leading role in the Superman films, has focused attention on a topic on which he became an ardent campaigner since becoming paralysed in a riding accident: the use of embryonic stem cells in research. For his death coincided with two heated political debates around the issue that are taking place simultaneously.

In the United States, Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry has pushed the issue of stem cell research to the front of his campaign agenda. Partly this appears an attempt to shift the focus of the campaign from Iraq — where he was not making much headway against his opponent, George W Bush — to domestic issues. But it seems to be a deliberate attempt to paint himself as a moderate pragmatist, in favour of both science and medical research (while not ignoring the need for an ethical commitment behind both), and his opponent as a conservative ideologue, who is willing to support both activities, but with significant restrictions.

A similar battlefront will open up on the international stage later this week when, for the third time in as many years, the member states of the United Nations will discuss introducing a global ban on all forms of human cloning. Included within such a ban would be the use of human embryos as a source of stem cells, the procedure strongly endorsed by Kerry — and equally strongly opposed by Bush.

Each side of both debates agree on one thing: that attempts to use cloning to produce complete human beings, or so-called 'reproductive cloning', should not be permitted. In this area, ethical concerns about the implications of such a practice are reinforced by warnings from scientists of both the medical risks involved, and the high cost in human lives and suffering that even an experimental programme of reproductive cloning is likely to inflict.

On so-called therapeutic cloning, however — sometimes referred to by its more technical description of 'somatic cell nuclear transfer' — the two sides could not be further apart. And ironically, if opponents to therapeutic cloning prevail in their attempts to get this included in a global treaty, it would be a victory for just the type of religious and philosophical intolerance that the United States claims that it is trying to abolish in its self-appointed role as an international policeman. In such circumstances, no treaty would be preferable to a bad one.

The issues at stake

Unlike many topics at the complex interface between science and politics, the key issues in the cloning debate are relatively straightforward. Proponents of the use of stem cells taken from human embryos argue that, in principle, these could eventually be used as replacement human tissue in the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and damage to the central nervous system. This is because taking stem cells from embryos based on cells of the patient being treated — hence the 'cloning' element — means that the risk of rejection is substantially lowered, as the cells would share the same genetic make-up.

Critics of the research argue that even though the embryo from which the stem cells are taken has been fertilised for less than 14 days — and hence is still a bundle of undifferentiated cells — it should be considered a human being, with full human rights. And that since extracting the cells makes the embryo unviable, it amounts to ending a human life.

Sadly there is a philosophical gulf between these two opposing views that is almost unbridgeable. The position taken by any individual on the issue, as on the closely related and underlying issue of abortion, will depend on whether or not that person believes the premise that a cluster of 16 cells can be considered a human being, and treated as such under both national and international law.

Indeed, given the scope for legitimate disagreement, it is not surprising that the issue has become so controversial. But it is also one that, since the technical possibilities became known with the birth of Dolly the sheep, and aided by high-profile coverage in the media, has been receiving a significant public and political airing in developed and developing countries alike.

As a result, many individual countries have taken — or are in the process of taking — their own decision, based, in most cases, on the standard democratic way, namely the considered feelings of the majority of their population as reflected in parliamentary debate (see, for example, Brazilian Senate approves biosafety law). Interestingly, some of the newly-industrialising countries appear more pragmatic than developed ones; China, Singapore and Panama, for example, are among those that have signalled their willingness to allow therapeutic cloning to be conducted.

A case for UN intervention?

Other countries, however, particularly those in the developing world in which the Catholic Church has a strong influence, or those with deeply embedded philosophical commitments, have chosen a different route. Among the latter is Germany, a key proponent of an international ban, where the steadfast opposition to all forms of human cloning has strong and understandable roots in the outrages perpetrated by the Nazis in the name of medical science.

In some cases, however, the opposition to stem cell research appears to have been more nakedly ideological. This is the situation in the United States, where such opposition has become a rallying cry for those that seek to roll back a wide raft of reforms aimed at creating a more tolerant society.

If the issue were to remain a purely domestic one, the rest of the world might not worry (indeed many countries are already benefiting from an influx of highly-qualified researchers keen to carry out such research, but unable to do so in US laboratories). Sadly, however, the United States has decided to turn the issue into something of an international moral crusade, making the drafting of a global treaty outlawing stem cell research as one of its five top priorities for action at the United Nations in 2004.

The irony of this move, coming from a country which has been so critical of the UN in other circumstances, and so opposed to an international treaty limited global warming, is almost transparent. Unsurprisingly, there has been widespread criticism from the scientific community of the prospects that a promising line of research should be banned for what many see as primarily ideological reasons.

Equally unsurprising is the support for such research that has come from a range of patient groups, whose members — or at least those that come after them — would be among the first to benefit from the successful outcome of such research. Last week, for example, this support was expressed in an open letter presented to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research on behalf of 125 domestic and international patients groups, scientific societies and academic institutions.

Given the closeness of the anticipated vote on this issue, however, the important fact will not be which side wins. It will be to ensure that open-mindedness and pragmatism, provided it comes with its own appropriate form of ethical commitment, prevails over an ideological fervour that ends up as both anti-science and authoritarian. Any international treaty that does not embrace the former values will not only devalue itself, but the whole UN system (if only because about half of the world will probably choose to ignore it). And that is an outcome that no one wants.

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