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UN blocks human cloning ban

Vote postpones cloning resolution for two years

November 7, 2003
Helen Pearson
Nature News Service

The United Nations (UN) yesterday blocked a bid to ban all forms of human cloning.

Delegates of the UN legal committee narrowly passed a resolution proposed by Iran, which delays for two years a decision on the contentious issue. Eighty countries - including Britain, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, Mexico and Russia - voted in favour of the delay, 79 voted against and 15 abstained.

The outcome denies the UN General Assembly the opportunity to vote on two other competing resolutions. One, proposed by Costa Rica and backed by the United States and more than 60 other countries, demands a blanket ban on the technique - outlawing both reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning, the creation of human embryos for medical research.

The other, proposed by Belgium and supported by some 20 countries, proposes a ban on reproductive cloning but would leave individual countries to draft their own laws on therapeutic cloning. Supporters argue that the research technique could create cells that will be useful in curing disease.

Both camps expressed disappointment at the two-year deferral. But a delay is preferable to a resolution without unanimous support, argues Marc Pecsteen, a legal adviser at the Belgian mission to the UN. "We think it's a victory of common sense, but not a satisfactory one," he says.

In the absence of UN guidelines, countries can continue to regulate human cloning as they see fit. Some nations, such as Britain, ban reproductive cloning but allow therapeutic cloning. In the United States, there is no legislation against either practice.

Without UN guidance, some scientists fear that rogue doctors are free to try to clone babies, says Kevin Wilson, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology. What's more, the prospect that therapeutic cloning might eventually be outlawed is also scaring scientists off such research, Wilson warns. "It has a chilling effect," he says.

Winding road

The UN cloning vote has been a long time coming. A committee was set up to discuss a ban on human reproductive cloning in December 2001. The debate stalled after the United States and other nations attempted to widen the plan to include therapeutic cloning.

Even if the UN legal committee votes in favour of a ban in two years' time, it will be just the beginning of a long, complex process towards making it international law. The resolution next goes before the UN General Assembly, which also votes.

Should the resolution pass, it will give a green light to the drafting of a UN convention, which must again be approved by the General Assembly. If this is accepted, the convention becomes legally binding in an individual country only once it has signed it.

Over the next two years, opposing camps will find different ways to promote their causes, Pecsteen predicts - for example, by drafting model laws that countries could use for their own legislation. "Other ideas may come up - but first we'll wait for the dust to settle," he says.

Copyright © 2003, Nature News Service