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Next month, the United Nations may be asked to approve a global ban on all techniques for cloning human embryo cells. Such an outcome would represent a victory of dogma over public health.

Ever since the world was introduced to Dolly, the cloned sheep, in 1997, various fears have been expressed that researchers would be tempted to apply to humans the techniques that were used to produce her. Some objections have been practical; many scientists have warned that these techniques remain too dangerous. Others have focused on the unpredictable psychosocial consequences of producing humans that are genetically identical to other individuals. But the strongest opposition has been based on a moral certainty that, whatever the pragmatic risks involved, producing carbon copies of human beings is ethically unacceptable.

Next month, the United Nations faces an opportunity to turn this moral certainty into international law when a committee takes up discussion of a possible treaty that would make what is known as 'reproductive cloning' a criminal offence. Building on a long line of international treaties targeting unethical practices, from human slavery to the use of biological weapons, the United Nations is likely to be asked to approve a new agreement that would place human cloning in the same category.

In this case, however, the United Nations is in danger of shooting itself in the foot. For the debate over the outlawing of reproductive cloning has been hijacked by those whose principal goal is different, namely to prevent all forms of human abortion. To achieve this, they are seeking to have the proposed ban extended to cover not only the reproductive cloning of human beings, but so-called 'therapeutic cloning' as well. This involves growing fertilised embryos for several days, and then extracting from them cells that might later be used as replacement tissue or organs for other individuals.

Such research is widely seen in the medical community as offering the chance of a major breakthrough in the treatment of disease, for example by replacing brain tissue in patients with Parkinson's disease. Yet since extracting the cells prevents the embryo from growing into a full human being, it has been condemned by those who claim that it involves the termination of a human life. And organisations that feel that way — which include the Roman Catholic Church and the US government — are now determined that this view should be expressed in the UN treaty.

Moving the goal posts

Things were never intended to turn out that way. When the first discussions about such a treaty were held in 2001, its supporters had a single target: to prevent the copying of grown human beings. Officials from Germany and France, two of the countries that took a lead in drawing up a draft of the treaty, were insistent that they had no intention of seeking a ban on therapeutic cloning — well aware of the lack of international consensus on this issue. It was on this basis that the UN General Assembly asked a committee to draw up a mandate for "An International Convention Against the Reproductive Cloning of Human Beings".

Since then, however, the debate has shifted, as various anti-abortion groups have spotted an opportunity to use the issue to push their demands at an international level. When the issue came up for debate in a UN committee last year, a group of more than 30 countries, led by the United States, Spain and the Philippines, made it clear that they would not support any international treaty unless it covered both reproductive and therapeutic cloning. As a result, it was decided to postpone any vote on the issue to allow further reflection (See Global human cloning ban put on ice).

In the intervening period, the campaign to ban all forms of cloning — even that which offers medical benefits — has increased in intensity. In February of this year, for example, the German parliament decided to defy its government by approving a comprehensive ban. And in April, the government of Costa Rica tabled a new draft of the treaty that would criminalise the cloning of human beings "whether carried out on an experimental basis, in the context of fertility treatments or pre-implantation diagnosis, for tissue transplantation or for any other purpose whatsoever".

The dangers of a comprehensive ban

A number of arguments are put forward by supporters of the broader ban. Perhaps the strongest is that medical research may find it unnecessary to use embryonic stem cells for growing new tissue or organs, since it may prove possible to use cells obtained from adults.

There is also some merit to the claim that the borderline between therapeutic and reproductive cloning would be a difficult one to police, since there will always be the temptation to move from one to the other — particularly when the financial rewards being offered by some individuals (such as those keen to replace a lost child) are as high as they are rumoured to be.

But a comprehensive ban that outlawed therapeutic cloning would be wrong, both ethically and politically. In response to those who claim that destroying fertilised cells is a form of murder, one can point out, firstly, that this is already a widespread and generally accepted practice with cells that have been fertilised — but left unused — during IVF treatment. Secondly, it can be argued that fertilised cells do not turn into a recognisable human being until a much later stage in pregnancy.

It is certainly true that medical research could, in principle, come up with ways of avoiding the use of embryonic stem cells. But there is no certainty that it will. And given that the potential benefits are so high  — as anyone who has witnessed degenerative disease at close hand will testify — medical researchers have a responsibility to explore every route that is open to them, providing it is done within acceptable guidelines.

Political risks

The political argument against going for a comprehensive ban is perhaps the strongest. In the wake of the Iraq crisis, the United Nations needs more than ever before to display its ability to pursue a common purpose. Given the opposition to a broad-based ban from a range of countries who seek a more liberal stance, any attempt to impose one, rather than focus on reproductive cloning, is likely to prove as politically divisive as the transatlantic dispute over the safety of GM crops (with the added irony that, in this case, it would be the United States standing up for ethical commitment rather than 'sound science', precisely the charge it has levelled against Europe on the GM crops issue).

There is still time for compromise. One suggestion, for example, is that the proposed treaty could embrace two tiers of signatory countries, one that bans therapeutic cloning, and the other that allows it. Furthermore the battle is far from over. The scientific community, for example, is being mobilised through its national academies to take a firm stand on allowing research on fertilised embryos to continue — while simultaneously advocating equally firmly a total ban on reproductive cloning.

It may even turn out that a global ban is not that urgent after all. Many of the early claims to have successfully achieved human cloning — for example, those by the company Clonaid or the Raelian Movement — have failed to materialise, or at least to convince the sceptics that they were any more than publicity gimmicks. And given that it took more than 300 attempts to produce the cloned horse unveiled two weeks ago, there is little reason to believe that achieving success in humans will be any easier. Furthermore, it could be argued that any attempt to clone a grown human being would already break widely accepted rules on the ethics of medical research.

None of this is to argue that it is wrong for the United Nations to try to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in biomedical research. A quick agreement that reproductive cloning lies beyond that line would have generated unanimous support, and considerably enhanced the United Nation's moral stature. Attempting to place therapeutic cloning in the same category will only be damaging and divisive. Which is the last thing that organisation wants in its current circumstances.

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