Special report: Dim chance for global cloning ban

More than 150 countries have no law on the books that bars reproductive cloning, including many—like the United States—which have the scientific resources and facilities necessary to produce a human clone

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Deep divisions within the international community, fed by religious views, economic interests and U.S. domestic politics, are hampering efforts to outlaw human reproductive cloning worldwide. Nearly all countries agree that reproductive cloning, or the creation of an identical human being through asexual reproductive methods, should be banned. But fewer than 30 of the 191 states recognized by the United Nations have outlawed researchers from attempting the procedure, according to UNESCO.

More than 150 countries have no law on the books that bars reproductive cloning, including many—like the United States—which have the scientific resources and facilities necessary to produce a human clone. In the absence of either national laws or an international agreement outlawing the procedure, researchers are developing techniques around the world—in South America and Asia—that could be used for reproductive cloning. In Europe, several countries have adopted laws banning reproductive cloning, but research continues, while in Israel, which has adopted a five year ban on the procedure, scientists work with little oversight and can easily transport the products of their research abroad.

Despite the ongoing scientific advances, there has been little progress on adopting international agreements outlawing the procedure, according to dozens of diplomats contacted by the Center for Public Integrity. The global rift on the issue was clearly evident when the U.N. General Assembly's Legal Committee voted last November to delay any decision on the issue, after a contentious debate that was marked by a flurry of lobbying.

The General Assembly's Legal Committee is scheduled to take up the issue again on October 21, but diplomats involved in past discussions and others who have closely followed the U.N. effort say it is unlikely that a global convention, agreeable to all nations, will be ratified, as countries remain divided over the scope and breadth of such a treaty.

A group of nations, led by the United States and Costa Rica, want a total ban on human cloning. Their view is in sync with the Vatican, which has also called for a comprehensive ban.

Costa Rica is planning to submit a revised proposal calling for a total ban on cloning research, including research for therapeutic purposes.

That echoes an earlier proposal the country filed with the U.N. that was tabled last year. "The cloning of human beings, whether carried out on an experimental basis, in the context of fertility treatments or pre-implantation diagnosis, for tissue transplantation or for any other purpose whatsoever, is morally repugnant, unethical and contrary to respect for the person and constitutes a grave violation of fundamental human rights…," according to a draft resolution filed by Bruno Stagno, permanent representative of Costa Rica to the United Nations, with Secretary General Kofi Annan on April 2, 2003.

Another group of more than two dozen countries, including Belgium, Germany, France and Britain, wants to limit the ban to just reproductive cloning. These nations favor the regulation of research cloning, which they think should be left for individual countries. "The [United Kingdom] believes that all types of stem cell research, including therapeutic cloning, should be encouraged," Adam Thomson, deputy permanent representative to the U.K. mission to the United Nations, told the General Assembly last December. "Indeed we believe that it would be indefensible to stop this research and deny millions of people – and their families – the chance of new treatments which could save their lives."

Diplomats, many of whom spoke to the Center on the condition that their names not be used, do not see a breaking of the impasse any time soon.

"[The stalemate] will continue, even if there is a vote," a diplomat from a Western European country active in the U.N. negotiations told the Center for Public Integrity. "The vote can go either way, but whichever way it goes nothing will come out of it. If they vote to defeat the beginning of negotiations, we won't have negotiations. If the vote is to start negotiations on a total ban, then nothing will come out of it either—except a convention ratified by a few states. But [there will be] no universal convention. It will be a gimmick."

Several diplomats and sources within the United Nations, who represent countries on all sides of the issue, voiced similar opinions.

"It is highly possible that we'll never have a treaty," a U.N. source said. "People are pushing their agenda—it is part of a bigger game."

Currently, few countries have enacted legislation in the area, a situation described by the Western European diplomat as "anarchic." He added, "The most troubling thing right now is only 20 countries out of 192 have legislation on the subject at all. [There's no law] in some countries that have the scientific potential to [achieve] cloning, like the U.S., which does not have laws."

According to UNESCO, "21 countries have adopted legislation which explicitly prohibits human reproductive cloning and eight other countries have interpreted their existing legislation as implicitly prohibiting human reproductive cloning."

Legislative attempts in U.S. Congress have stalled because of a similar divide on the issue of research cloning.

American overreach

Global efforts to prohibit human cloning began in 1997 after British scientist Ian Wilmut announced the birth of Dolly; the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, denounced human cloning in its Universal Declaration on Human Genome and Human Rights, adopted that year. The declaration, which is not binding, was endorsed by the General Assembly.

The United Nations took up the issue in 2001, at the behest of France and Germany—the first time, according to many U.N. observers, in its nearly six decades of existence that the world body got involved in a bioethics issue. The two countries said a U.N. convention, besides providing a set of moral guidelines, would lead member states to enact national legislation, preventing those who have vowed to clone human beings from taking advantage of the legal vacuum that exists in most parts of the world.

The Vatican, which has an observer status at the United Nations, was the first to propose that the convention be expanded to include a ban on research cloning as well. The Catholic Church considers embryos as human beings and is opposed to all research on embryos.

Several scientists and diplomats blamed the United States for the U.N. stalemate. They said the American insistence on a comprehensive ban—and that of Costa Rica, its main ally on the issue—makes any universally accepted treaty banning just reproductive cloning unlikely, despite a strong consensus in favor of outlawing the practice.

Yumiko Iuchi, an advisor to Japan's U.N. mission, said "very strong opinions" of countries such as Costa Rica and the U.S. was the problem. "The most regrettable point is that we can all agree on the prohibition on the so-called reproductive cloning."

Also, faulting the United States was Ian Wilmut, the scientist who created Dolly.

"It is very disappointing that the United States has obstructed moves to prevent reproductive cloning," he told the Center just after the U.N. vote last December. "Because they have insisted on trying to block everything, they are missing the opportunity to make reproductive cloning illegal all around the world. I think it's a great shame that that is happening."

The strong push for a ban on research cloning by the U.S. government surprised some at the U.N., especially because there is no domestic consensus on the issue.

"The United States is promoting a convention at the UN level which [if passed] they would find difficult to ratify themselves," a Middle Eastern diplomat involved in the negotiations told the Center.

For U.N. treaties to become binding on a country, it must ratify them. In the past, the U.S. Senate, which has the constitutional power to ratify or reject treaties a president signs, has voted down some conventions the United States helped advance. A well publicized example is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a convention that bans nuclear weapons tests, which has not been approved by the United States.

U.N. diplomats said a treaty banning research cloning would not be ratified by many Western nations, nor by other countries, such as Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, India and South Africa, which have advanced stem cell research infrastructure.

There are those that see U.S. domestic politics as the driving force behind the administration's position at the United Nations.

All the Bush administration wanted was a convention for its "constituency," the Middle Eastern diplomat said. A U.N. vote for banning all cloning research would have allowed the White House to show religious conservatives, by far the most vocal opponents of the embryonic cloning, some specific progress toward outlawing the research.

A White House-backed bill banning all cloning was passed by the House last year, but it remains stalled in the Senate. (See the side story)

"Perhaps they can use [the U.N convention] as a tool to force a vote within the U.S. at the federal level," said Jose Cibelli, a professor at the Michigan State University who is engaged in cloning research. Recently, Cibelli addressed national delegates at the U.N. on behalf of a group campaigning against prohibition of research cloning. "They can go to the Senate and say the U.N. has just acted and we have to do the same."

When reached for comments at the U.S. mission, an official who declined to be identified rejected these assertions. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Diplomats from nations supporting research cloning also pointed out that many of the countries pushing for a complete ban on cloning have themselves no laws or regulations, while many countries that favor a limited ban do.

Britain was among the first countries to prohibit reproductive cloning; other nations such as Germany, France, Belgium, Japan, Singapore and China, which favor regulation of research cloning, have outlawed reproductive cloning.

"The countries that supported the Belgian position have laws," a diplomat from a European country that supports research cloning said, referring to a proposal submitted by Belgium favoring research cloning. "It is a fairly big disconnect in the case of the other group."

Economic interests

Restrictions on research cloning are resisted by a number of groups, which claim that they will shut down a research area that holds promise for curing disease.

Some nations that opposed a complete ban on the research have already made heavy investments on research cloning and stem cell experiments. In fact, a growing number of countries see—besides therapeutic promises—great economic potential in embryonic cloning, stem cell research and other related biotechnology research. Great Britain leads this pack that also includes China, South Korea, Singapore, Australia and India.

Britain has said it will opt out of any treaty that bans research cloning. "[T]he United Kingdom would never be party to any convention which aimed to introduce a global ban on therapeutic cloning, neither will the UK participate in the drafting of such a convention nor apply it in its national law," British envoy Thompson said in his December address. "Therapeutic cloning research will continue to be permitted in the U.K."

"Britain clearly has edge on this field and they don't want to give up this for nothing," said a diplomat, referring to British opposition to a complete ban on cloning research. However, the envoy pointed out that, to its credit, Britain has enacted laws on the subject as early as 1990. Currently, Britain has clearly delineated laws on stem cell research, prohibiting research on embryos without a license from a regulatory authority and restricting other stem cell experiments.

Last week, Britain opened a £4.6 million "Stem Cell Bank," the world's first national stem cell repository, to help medical researchers obtain stem cell lines.

The United Kingdom has the world's second largest biotechnology industry after the United States, comprising nearly 400 biotechnology companies, according to the British government. In 2001, it employed 19,000 workers and generated $2.6 billion in revenue.

A British official at the country's permanent mission in New York said that economic interests had no role in his country's stand on the issue.

"They are starting to lose enthusiasm on [the idea of a UN convention]," a U.N. source said of the British. "It [the way some countries are trying to ban all cloning] is wrong in their eyes."

Asian countries that favor research cloning, including Singapore, China, South Korea and Japan, have also made investments in biotechnology.

Singapore, which suffered an economic slump during the Asian financial crises of the mid-1990s, is in the process of revamping itself as a biotech nation. Last October, the city state unveiled an ambitious biotechnology corridor/complex called Biopolis, which has a capacity to host some 2,000 scientists and is expected to further expand the country's US$5 billion biotech business.

The island nation hosted a stem cell research conference last year, attended by scores of prominent scientists from across the world. The country has chalked up plans to attract reputed scientists from the West and it scored an early victory in this regard by luring British scientist Alan Colman, former research director at PPL Therapeutics, a prominent biotechnology company that collaborated in the creation of Dolly, as well as Polly, Holly, Molly & Olly, the first transgenic, cloned mammals.

Singapore has an eye on the U.S. market as well. The country's economic development board had a presence at the 2003 annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the industry trade group and lobbying arm that boasts a membership of more than 1,000 biotech firms.

South Korea is a leading country in research cloning. The government funded the work of the two South Korean scientists who stunned the world in February, announcing they had cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells from them.

"We are not thinking about compromising our position," said Eunju Ahn, a second secretary at the South Korean mission at the United Nations. The progress of science and the benefits of medical research are the important things, she stressed.

Singapore, South Korea, Japan and China, all have legislation prohibiting reproductive cloning and regulating research cloning.

"The government of Japan has already enacted a regulatory law on human reproductive cloning in 2000," a Japanese diplomat told the Center.

Religious intervention

During last fall's U.N. negotiations, the preference of a group of mainly Islamic states for inaction prevailed. The proposal to postpone the U.N. action was initiated by Iran and other Islamic nations. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a coalition of 40 odd Muslim nations, was at the forefront of the move.

Few Muslim nations conduct any research related to cloning and, last fall, most members of OIC had not formulated a policy on cloning. And prior to the U.N. discussions, prominent Islamic theologians had not ruled on the morality of the issue of research cloning, a legal adviser at the Iranian mission at the U.N., Mostafa Dolatyar, said.

Dolatyar added that Muslim nations have a better understanding of the issue since last fall.

Also, expressing reservations about the U.N. discussions were some African nations. Other than South Africa, no African country is known to be conducting any research in the field.

A European diplomat said some African nations opposed what they thought were unreasonably large amounts of time and resource spent on the issue at the U.N. level. From their perspective, it's understandable, he said. "For them the more immediate problems are poverty and diseases such as AIDS."

The diplomat said some African nations were concerned about potential problems that could arise if research cloning becomes a standard medical practice. "Many of them have concerns about a danger of trafficking in embryos of which women from developing countries could be victims," he said.

The Costa Rican draft also mentioned the issue of the potential exploitation of women.

Successful nuclear transfer currently requires availability of a large number of female eggs. The South Korean scientists who extracted stem cells from cloned embryos reportedly had access to more than 200 eggs.

The research lobby

According to diplomats, a feature of the U.N. debate was the relentless lobbying by non-governmental and other independent groups on different sides of the issue. Opposing the move to allow research cloning were mainly religious and pro-life groups. Patients' rights groups, such as Parkinson's Action Network and Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, campaign for legalization of research cloning.

Also joining the fray were scientists who formed a global coalition last fall to lobby against the U.S.-Costa Rica proposal. The group, which has the support of some 50 Nobel laureates, called on the United Nations to allow stem cell research to proceed with strict regulations.

The scientific community's involvement at the U.N. level has been unprecedented for any issue, said a diplomat from a Western European country that supports research cloning. Such intense international lobbying efforts brought to the fore issues such as "scientific freedom" and "politicization of science."

"Science always had political implications, and there's nothing bad in itself," the diplomat said. "But the research interests of the scientists should not dictate the laws. I think it should be the other way around. Laws should govern the scientific research to make sure that science should not go beyond what's ethically relevant."

Franco Furger, the executive director of the Human Biotechnology Governance Forum, which favors government regulation of cloning and other types of human genetic engineering, agreed.

"Scientists tend to assume that they can answer [ethical] questions themselves," he said. "In a democratic society, they cannot impose their will on [what is] a moral issue."

Forcing the issue

Advocates of a total ban are hoping to impose their will on states that favor some research into therapeutic cloning, and are unperturbed by questions over the a potential international treaty's lack of legitimacy, should majority of nations opt out.

Responding to suggestions that a convention banning all types of cloning will lack legitimacy in the absence of a consensus, a diplomat from a nation that supports a complete ban said, "That's not how international treaties work." He pointed out that, at the time they were adopted, there was no unanimous consensus on such groundbreaking treaties such as the "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" and "Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Those opposing a total ban are not prepared to back off. "The problem is that if we end up in a deadlock again, who is it a big problem for? Is it a big problem for our camp or a big problem for their camp?" Heinrich Hahn, counselor at Denmark's U.N. mission told the Center. "Time is on our side. If we go forward five years on this there will be significant research."

Alexander Cohen contributed to this report.

 

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