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UN: General Assembly Committee Postpones Action On Cloning

  • Robert McMahon

A UN General Assembly committee has voted to defer for two years a decision on whether to seek an international convention to ban cloning. By a one-vote margin, member states decided they need more time to reach consensus on the issue. The vote marked a defeat for the United States and scores of countries which had sought to send an immediate message to deter the practice of human cloning.

United Nations, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Advocates of a total ban on cloning humans have suffered a setback at the United Nations, as some states signaled they were not prepared to rule out therapeutic uses of the practice.

A UN General Assembly committee yesterday voted to defer for two years a decision on whether to pursue an international convention to ban cloning. It marked a defeat for the United States, which had lobbied hard for a vote on the total ban. But U.S. diplomats said they had made major progress in building support for a ban and would continue those efforts.

The UN committee, by a one-vote margin, accepted a motion by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to delay consideration of the issue. Iran introduced the motion for the 57-member OIC.

Before the vote, Iranian envoy Mostafa Dolatyar said the aim of the deferral was to give states more time to study the challenging issue. "The issue of human cloning is a very complex and delicate question. Even in the scientific circles we can see a manifestation of uncertainty, hesitation, and divergence of views in this regard," he said. An overwhelming majority of UN members oppose cloning for reproductive purposes, with many states already legislating against it. But some states were undecided about banning the practice of cloned embryos for potential therapeutic uses.

Supporters of human cloning for medical purposes say there is hope that stem cells from human embryos can be used to find cures for a range of diseases. But opponents say such research, involving the destruction of embryos, amounts to murder.

Representatives from a number of states said they were concerned that a lack of consensus at this time would blunt the effectiveness of an eventual convention. Belgium's UN ambassador, Jean de Ruyt, said that since consensus on a draft resolution was impossible, it was preferable to delay and create a better chance for compromise. "We clearly need more time to reflect on all issues involved. In the meantime, scientific developments may provide new elements and shed more light on this debate," de Ruyt said.

Belgium was the sponsor of a resolution, sponsored by 14 states, calling for the partial ban of cloning. The resolution called on states to ban reproductive cloning but would have allowed states to adopt their own measures regulating other forms of cloning. A second resolution, sponsored by 66 states, said human cloning for any purpose is "unethical, morally repugnant and contrary to due respect for the human person." U.S. diplomats said there was support of more than 100 countries for that measure but some who are members of the OIC deferred to the group's decision to delay action. U.S. Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham expressed understanding for the position of Islamic states. But he told reporters that even if the move to ban was accepted, the lengthy treaty preparation process would allow states time to fully consider their views: "They have a fundamental need to integrate policy and views from their religious community and in many places that integration hasn't taken place yet. Our view was we should establish a standard and then their process can continue at the same time."

Costa Rican Ambassador Bruno Stagno, whose country was chief sponsor of the total ban, told RFE/RL he was concerned about human-reproductive cloning becoming a reality in the absence of an international process to prevent it.

Stagno also raised alarm about an issue cited by some African delegates -- that cloning research would take advantage of women in the developing world: "Most of the promise for regenerative medicine is coming nowadays from adult stem cell research and not from embryonic stem-cell research. And so we believe that because of the dignity and the human rights of the women of the Third World -- that most probably would be the donors of the eggs that would be needed for experimental cloning -- that it is opportune for the international community to come forward with a moratorium at this point." France and Germany had launched the effort to ban cloning human beings two years ago. They said in a joint statement yesterday that they supported the postponement as "the lesser evil" because of the lack of consensus. Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine were among 15 states which abstained in the vote. Romanian Ambassador Mihnea Motoc said his delegation tried to promote compromise and still hoped to bridge the two main sides in the dispute: "What we should aim at is understanding and cooperation and [promoting] elements of convergence over those of divergence while remaining attached to the common perception of the need for the international community to take action on human cloning, which is one of the most pressing challenges of our times."

The Council of Europe's 1997 Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine prohibits the creation of human embryos for research purposes. A 1998 protocol to the convention bans reproductive cloning.