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UN committee approves cloning ban

February 21, 2005 By Roxanne Khamsi This article courtesy of Nature News.

Non-binding measure goes to general assembly for final vote.

After three years of deadlock, a United Nations legal committee has recommended that member nations should be urged to ban all forms of human cloning. The decision undermines efforts to develop medical treatments with stem cells, scientists say.

If the UN General Assembly approves the statement in a future vote, however, it would not become an international treaty. Instead, the non-binding declaration is a compromise that was hammered out after negotiations failed to agree on a legally binding treaty to ban cloning internationally.

Nevertheless, the committee's decision on 18 February comes as a blow to scientists who believe that research on stem cells that come from cloned human embryos could lead to cures for many diseases, such as diabetes.

Stem-cell expert Stephen Minger, of King's College in London, says that the recent vote points to misguided political aims, not a careful scientific assessment. "It's just one more scenario where stem cells have become politicized," he says.

Richard Gardner, chairman of Britain's Royal Society working group on stem-cell research and cloning, says that the declaration is "ambiguous and badly worded", and calls the decision "frustrating and disappointing".

Proposal problems

The non-binding proposal was put forward by Honduras and backed by the United States. With 71 to 35 voting in favour of the statement, this result highlights deep divisions within the committee. Forty-three members abstained from voting; many of them were representatives of Islamic countries who withheld because of the lack of consensus.
It's just one more scenario where stem cells have become politicized.
Stephen Minger
King's College, London.

"This fails to send a clear message to maverick scientists that reproductive cloning is unacceptable," says Gardner. "The Royal Society, backed by 67 of the world's science academies, still believes that making a distinction that bans reproductive cloning, but allows individual countries to decide whether to allow therapeutic cloning, is the only way that a consensus can be achieved."

France and Germany first proposed drafting an international treaty to ban reproductive cloning in 2001. But this approach was defeated after heated disagreement between UN member nations about the legitimacy of stem-cell research that relies on cloned human embryos. In late 2004, talks fell apart when countries attempted to tackle the issue once again.

Countries that oppose a blanket ban, including Belgium and Britain, have spoken against the move to forbid all types of cloning, and they are unlikely to change their views on the basis of a non-binding declaration.

"All indications are that the UK government will forge ahead in making Britain a world leader in this promising avenue of research," says Gardner.

Although the United States played a pivotal role in promoting the anti-cloning agenda, scientists in that country are free to pursue all types of cloning with private funding. This creates a strange paradox, says Minger. "It just doesn't make any sense to me," he says. "They should first come up with a policy for their own backyard."


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