Opposition to cloning isn't just the purview of those supposed mad theocrats who continue to rule the White House. The Bush administration has prospective allies, even in the halls of the internationalist bureaucracy. Witness a resolution proposed by Costa Rica for an international treaty that would completely ban both reproductive cloning (cloning to produce a baby) and therapeutic cloning (cloning to produce transplant tissues). At the end of this week, the United Nations' legal committee is expected to consider that proposed ban.
This follows in the wake of a report last February that South Korean researchers had succeeded in creating the first cloned human embryos and derived embryonic stem cells from one of them. The embryos were produced by installing nuclei from adult cells into human eggs whose nuclei had been removed. Such "therapeutic cloning" produces embryonic stem cells that are virtually genetically identical to those of the person who donated the adult cell's nucleus. This means that tissues and cells produced using them would not be rejected by the donor's immune system, and thus would make perfect transplants for the donor.
Initially, some 63 nations signed onto Costa Rica's proposed resolution. In 2003, the UN General Assembly legal committee voted 80 to 79 to delay consideration of the clone ban for one year—largely because Islamic nations opposed it. The Organization of the Islamic Conference favors a consensus resolution on cloning rather than one that deeply divides the General Assembly. Islam doesn't seem to endorse the "life begins at conception" dogma of Roman Catholicism and many Protestant evangelical denominations.
Belgium, meanwhile, tried to counter the broad anti-cloning resolution with an alternative one that would ban only reproductive cloning and remain silent regarding the therapeutic variety. The Belgian resolution is backed by Britain, Japan, South Korea, and India, among others. In August, Britain granted its first license to a University of Newcastle laboratory to create cloned human embryos for the purpose of extracting stem cells.
"If other countries decide they want to ban therapeutic cloning then we respect that. All we are asking for is the same respect in return. We believe it would be totally wrong for the United Nations to attempt to override the position we have reached in the U.K. through our democratic process," declared Britain's UN ambassador Emyr Jones Parry during the debate over the resolution.
Political forces aren't alone in fighting the possible cloning ban. Additionally, 67 scientific academies from around the world, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, have signed a statement opposing a UN ban. "Cloning for research and therapeutic purposes," the letter states, "has considerable potential from a scientific perspective, and should be excluded from the ban on human cloning."
Although the U.S. House of Representatives has twice voted to criminalize both reproductive and therapeutic human cloning research, neither are in fact banned here since the proposed ban has never passed the Senate.
Bernard Siegel, executive director of the pro-cloning Genetics Policy Institute, believes that the Bush administration pushed for a global ban on reproductive and therapeutic cloning as a way to energize his pro-life political base during an election year. "It's a symbolic crusade against stem-cell research," he says. Siegel, who has been at the forefront of opposition to the possible UN ban, organized a scientific conference on the topic at the UN in June 2004 featuring some very high-powered scientists, including Ian Wilmot, the cloner of Dolly the sheep.
Given that support for a ban on therapeutic cloning seems to be eroding—seven African countries that once backed the Costa Rican resolution no longer do—Siegel hopes for two outcomes at the end of the week. The first: the UN legal committee delays consideration of the proposed ban for another year. The second: a behind-the-scenes effort arises to craft language that can be broadly approved by the General Assembly later—language he has reason to believe would be less harsh on cloning than the Costa Rican proposal.
Siegel believes either outcome would amount to a defeat for the Bush administration and other opponents of therapeutic cloning. Such a defeat, says Siegel, "would be a great victory for scientific researchers and patient groups."