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[CAIRO] Muslim states are being asked to allow the cloning of human embryos for research into possible medical treatments — so-called therapeutic cloning — while maintaining a ban on the reproductive cloning of human beings.

Both provisions are included in the draft text of what is being proposed as the first international Islamic code of medical and health ethics, approved during the eighth conference of the Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences (IOMS), held in Cairo last month.

The proposed code addresses the relationships between physicians, their patients, and wider society from the perspectives of both Islam and medical ethics. It takes into account Islamic views on new medical techniques such as in vitro fertilisation and gene therapy.

Any decision to endorse therapeutic cloning could have international implications. Last November, the United Nations dropped plans for an international treaty that could have banned all forms of human cloning, deciding instead merely to draft a declaration giving guidance to countries on the issue — a weaker legal text (see UN drops proposed cloning ban).

Media reports at the time suggested that the decision to shelve debate on a treaty, views on which are sharply divided in non-Muslim countries, was partially prompted by the absence of a joint position among Muslim countries.

The proposed code has already been endorsed by geneticists, healthcare ethicists, Islamic scholars and medical professionals from several international organisations, and will now be reviewed and finalised by IOMS ahead of its proposed adoption by health ministries in Muslim countries.

As this is due to occur before the United Nations meets in February 2005 to finalise and vote on the wording of its human cloning declaration, the proposed code for Muslim countries could have a significant impact on the text of the declaration.

Delegates at the Cairo conference, which was hosted by the World Health Organization's Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO), agreed that the Islamic code should, if approved by the health ministers and their governments, be posted on the websites of all medical institutions.

They also agreed that copies of the code should be distributed to all healthcare professionals, and that workshops should be organised to discuss how to put the new code into practice.

In order to achieve this, EMRO will work with the ministries of health in the region to set up ad hoc committees to discuss issues pertaining to medical and health ethics.

The conference called on ministers of education and deans of medical schools in the Arab and Muslim world to integrate the approved code into their curricula, and to teach the code in faculties of medicine.

It also asked for the establishment of bioethics committees at both university and national levels in Muslim countries, and for Islamic bioethics committees in IOMS to be informed of any modifications to the proposed code of ethics, and to keep track of the future developments in medical sciences.

But the outcome remains uncertain, as sharply differing views on human cloning exist among religious scholars. Abdulaziz Sachedina, an expert on the ethics of cloning in Islam at the University of Virginia in the United States, told The Washington Post in November that therapeutic cloning should be acceptable to both Shia and Sunni Muslims.

To support this conclusion, Sachedina pointed out that human embryos lack the same sanctity in Islam as they do in Christianity, and are not regarded as people in any sense.

Other scholars, however, disagree. Indeed some of those at the Cairo conference suggested establishing a framework within Islamic law to control medical practices. Their suggestion is similar to that of a committee of legal experts representing the ministries of justice of Arab countries. In June 2004, the committee proposed an Arab cloning law under which scientists who try to clone humans in Arab countries could be jailed and fined.

Others, as in Western countries, argue that science itself may provide a path around the dilemma. Morad Ahmed Morad, for example, a professor of medicine at Tanta University, Egypt, told SciDev.Net that using stem cells produced from eggs that have been artificially stimulated to divide — in other words, do not need fertilisation by sperm — will avoid ethical objections to harvesting stem cells from donated human embryos.

According to Morad, this method of obtaining stem cells should be more acceptable from an Islamic point of view, since these cells cannot develop into human beings.

The Cairo conference was organised by IOMS in cooperation with the World Health Organization, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences, the Ajman University of Science and Technology Network and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

An Islamic code of medical and health ethics was first proposed in 1981 when IOMS took the initiative of adopting an Islamic document for medical ethics in a conference in Kuwait.

Link to the first international Islamic code of medical and health ethics (In Arabic)

Link to the draft text of Arab cloning law (In Arabic)