Germany and France are leading efforts to draft a UN treaty banning the cloning of human beings. There appears to be support among states in the United Nations for controls on cloning. But a formal convention would take years to complete and, like other treaties involving science and technology, could be subject to lengthy delays. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 13 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations organizations are already on record condemning human cloning, but developments in the past week may spur action on a legally binding UN convention to ban the practice.
In Washington last week (7 August), several researchers told the U.S. National Academy of Sciences they planned to clone human beings despite ethical objections voiced by many scientists.
France issued one of the strongest condemnations, with Health Minister Bernard Kouchner calling it morally unacceptable. He called on Italy to bar Dr. Severino Antinori, a main proponent of human cloning, from practicing medicine in his country.
France and Germany last week sent a letter asking the UN General Assembly to start work on a UN convention to ban cloning for human reproductive purposes at the assembly's next meeting, scheduled for 11 September. A UN spokesman said a General Assembly committee will decide whether to add the cloning ban initiative to the agenda next month.
The General Assembly two years ago endorsed the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. That declaration states that practices which are "contrary to human dignity," such as reproductive cloning of human beings, shall not be permitted. The World Health Organization also adopted resolutions with similar language in 1997 and 1998. But neither the declaration nor the resolutions are binding. France's deputy UN ambassador, Yves Doutriaux, told RFE/RL there appears to be broad support for a binding document.
"I've already spoken with many delegations and it's a real concern worldwide, so France and Germany expect this consensus would occur this fall because it's an important topic."
Doutriaux stressed that any such convention will need to clearly define the limits of such a ban. According to the text of the German-French proposal, it recognizes that the rapid development of life sciences opens up prospects for the improvement of health of individuals, but this also "may pose dangers to the integrity and dignity of the individual."
A number of prominent scientists at last Tuesday's panel discussion in Washington criticized the cloning research and said it would result in dead and deformed fetuses.
Doutriaux said despite apparent support for a UN convention, the preparatory work for such a measure would require at least two years before treaty negotiations could formally begin. Cloning researchers, meanwhile, say they are ready to begin work on cloning humans later this fall.
The French envoy said nations which oppose the practice could act ahead of a global ban by enacting domestic legislation.
"When you have to negotiate here legally binding international instruments, you need time for that. But why not on the national basis take prohibitive measures, interim prohibitive measures, pending the implementation of the international convention? So it's a matter of urgency."
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation that would forbid the cloning of human embryos -- even in the search for cures to diseases. A similar measure has been introduced in the Senate, but its chances of passing are unclear.
Doutriaux says draft legislation on a cloning ban is under consideration in the French National Assembly.
But despite the opposition to human cloning expressed last week by a number of governments, at least one expert on international law expects talks on a global convention on cloning to be long and difficult.
Ruth Wedgwood of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, tells RFE/RL that recent history has proven it is very difficult to negotiate treaties on issues in which technology is changing. She says recent international initiatives aimed at controlling cyber-crime and genetically altered food have been fraught with conflicting interests.
"My guess is it's going to be a lot of enthusiasm at the beginning, and then a lot of input by concerned research scientists at the end, and (it will) end up not being at all easy to do this."
She said only a very narrow definition of a human cloning ban will likely be part of a global treaty on the issue. Wedgwood noted the difficult decision faced by U.S. President George W. Bush on whether to allow federal funding for stem-cell research, where ethical issues and were balanced with the potential for dramatic medical advancements.
Stem cells, when taken from human embryos, can grow into any type of tissue in the body, and may hold the secret for treating diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, and certain spinal cord injuries. Bush told the nation late last week he would permit funding for this research but only on cells that have already been extracted. He said the government would not support the destruction of new embryos.
Bush had faced pressure from stem-cell research proponents seeking funding for experimentation on a less restrictive basis as well as religious groups which object to any experimentation done on human embryos.
Wedgwood says by the time a UN treaty on cloning is debated in earnest, cloning may be seen in a slightly more positive light.
"Cloning is the pejorative word but what do you do if it's an attempt to salvage genetic information to allow an otherwise barren person to reproduce? Is that cloning, or is that fulfilling a family? No one wants to make twins, triplets, quadruplets, octuplets of people but at the same time some of the same technology may be used to allow a childless family to reproduce."
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which heard the plans of cloning advocates last week, is compiling information for a report by the end of next month on whether the United States should impose a moratorium on human cloning.
The World Health Organization's Human Genetics Division coordinator, Victor Boulijenkov, told Brazilian media last week the WHO is preparing an "ethical guide" to be published next year and distributed internationally. He said cloning, which he condemns, will be a significant part of the guide.