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More than 60 science academies from every continent have called on the United Nations to adopt a ban on human reproductive cloning. But they urge against outlawing 'therapeutic cloning' – the creation of cloned embryos solely to obtain stem cells to treat a variety of diseases.

Their call comes a week before a meeting of the UN Committee on Cloning in New York, which is set to debate a proposal by Costa Rica for a universal ban on both forms of cloning.  

In a statement issued today, the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP), which represents scientific academies worldwide, says that reproductive human cloning aimed at reproducing full human beings is "irresponsible" given the current level of scientific knowledge.

"There are strong purely scientific and biological reasons why we should outlaw reproductive cloning", in additional to the ethical objections that many have against it, says Robert May, president of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy. For example, research on reproductive cloning in other mammals shows high rates of foetal disorders and loss throughout pregnancy, and of malformation and death among newborns.

But therapeutic cloning, the IAP statement argues, "has considerable potential from a scientific perspective." In particular, many scientists say that the technique could eventually help in the treatment of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. It argues that individual nations should be allowed to decide whether or not to allow such research.

Many nations at the UN meeting next week are expected to push for a universal ban on all forms of cloning. Last November, UN talks on the treaty on human cloning were put on hold because of a failure to agree on whether or not to include therapeutic cloning in the ban.

France and Germany originally proposed a ban in 2001 in response to Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori's announcement that he intended to clone a human baby. They limited their proposal to human reproductive cloning on the grounds that there was general consensus that this should be outlawed.

But last year a group of more than 30 countries, led by the United States, Spain and the Philippines refused to support any ban unless it included therapeutic cloning. They argued that therapeutic cloning is unethical, and that it would be difficult to enforce a ban on reproductive cloning alone if therapeutic cloning in laboratories was permitted.

"Opinions on the ethics of therapeutic cloning in different countries are divided," said May. "It would be a tragedy if we allowed disagreements on therapeutic cloning to jeopardise a convention that would ensure that human reproductive cloning is outlawed across the globe."

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