NEW YORK, MAY 17, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Negotiations to reach an international treaty to ban human cloning broke down last September and countries agreed to put off a decision for 12 months. Costa Rica, however, has recently put forward a new proposal aimed at renewing efforts to formulate a ban.
Back in December 2001 the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution, proposed by France and Germany, calling on the United Nations to initiate a process for a binding treaty banning human reproductive cloning.
The task was assigned to the U.N. Secretariat’s Sixth Committee (6Com), which was to establish an ad hoc committee that in turn would negotiate a mandate for a subsequent committee that would negotiate the treaty itself. The Ad Hoc Committee on an International Convention against the Reproductive Cloning of Human Beings met for the first time in February 2002 to initiate the treaty process.
Progress on achieving a treaty was stymied due to disagreement over the extent of the ban. A joint French-German proposal favored a treaty that would ban reproductive cloning, but would allow so-called therapeutic cloning, for research purposes. The regulation of therapeutic cloning would be handled by a subsequent treaty. Another group of countries, led by the United States and Spain, called for a treaty that would ban both reproductive and therapeutic cloning.
Elements of the proposal
Last month Costa Rica presented to the United Nations a proposal for a prohibition of all form of human cloning. The introductory text to the document says the proposal is an attempt to guarantee respect for the dignity and fundamental rights of the human being, in the face of threats posed by cloning experiments.
Costa Rica’s proposal is made up of the following elements:
— a definition of the crime of human cloning.
— a mandate obliging nations to identify this crime and establish a legal framework to punish those who engage in cloning.
— a requirement obliging nations to adopt means to prevent cloning, including regulations on experiments using human genetic material.
— provisions designed to facilitate international cooperation among juridical and police authorities.
The proposal does not touch upon the questions of abortion, stem cell research, or in-vitro fertilization. Neither does it try to define exactly what is a human person, or when human life begins.
John Paul II welcomed Costa Rica’s activity in drawing attention to ethical problems related to cloning. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano sent a telegram to participants in a recent seminar in Costa Rica which focused on cloning and human rights in the light of a proposed international treaty to ban cloning. Cardinal Sodano said that the Pope wished to declare his appreciation for the efforts by those present to clarify matters on such an important theme.
Why a total ban
Spain and the United States have explained why they favor a total ban on human cloning. Spain put forward its arguments in a memorandum accompanying a petition by numerous countries presented at a 6Com meeting last Oct. 18. The resolution asked that the United Nations not delay taking action against cloning.
The Spanish text affirmed that therapeutic cloning is incompatible with legal and safe scientific research, given that it involves experimenting with human embryos. The European Convention on Human Rights and Biotechnology (the Oviedo Convention), ratified in 1999 by a number of countries, specifically prohibits the creation of human embryos for the purpose of experimentation.
Any treaty that merely prohibits reproductive cloning would be lacking a solid juridical founding, given that the cloning technique for both reproductive and therapeutic ends is essentially the same, the memorandum adds.
As well, the efficacy of any ban on reproductive cloning would be fatally undermined if therapeutic cloning is permitted, given that it would be impossible in practical terms to distinguish the two types, it adds.
By contrast, a total ban on human cloning has the advantage of establishing a clear limit to scientific investigation, the document says. Such clarity is desirable on a matter that involves fundamental human values, both for individuals and society in general.
The Spanish document also commented that recent experience with animal cloning confirms doubts about the wisdom of experiments involving humans. Cloning involves a high degree of risk that the embryos will be seriously deformed and affected by genetic abnormalities. Moreover, cloning is not the only way open for scientific research, given that experiments with adult stem cells have given positive results.
At the October meeting, Ambassador Sichan Siv, the U.S. representative before the 6Com, argued that human beings are different from other animate or inanimate objects. In his remarks, made public in an Oct. 17 press release by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Siv stated: “Indeed, it is widely recognized that the human body and its parts should not, as such, become commodities, giving rise to financial gain.”
Siv continued, explaining that “accepted principles of medical science dictate that experiments should not be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury of a human will occur.” The two aspects of human cloning “are indivisible — intellectually, scientifically and practically,” he added.
Germany and France’s move
The partial ban on cloning proposed by France and Germany flies in the face of repeated decisions by the Parliament of the European Union calling for a total ban. The European Parliament on Nov. 22 voted in favor of an international ban on all forms of human cloning, the Friday Fax of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute noted that day.
The vote came by means of an amendment to a biotechnology report in which the Parliament “repeats its insistence that there should be a universal and specific ban at the level of the United Nations on the cloning of human beings at all stages of formation and development and urges the commission and the member states to work toward this end.”
On April 10 the European Parliament repeated its call for a ban, reported the Associated Press. Parliamentarians voted in favor a ban on creating human embryos for stem cell research, including through cloning. Decisions by the European Parliament still require approval by the individual member states before they can be enforced.
Further criticism came from the German Parliament. According to the Feb. 21 issue of the Friday Fax, almost all the members of the major German parties voted in favor of a declaration urging the government to change its position at the United Nations and to embrace a total ban on human cloning.
The declaration states that cloning constitutes an assault on human dignity, and that there is no moral distinction between types of cloning, since all cloning results in the creation of living human embryos.
Recent claims that humans have already been cloned have not been independently substantiated. However, Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, has repeatedly declared that he wants to clone a human embryo. According to the Sunday Times on April 27, Wilmut declared he would submit an application to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority this year to clone an embryo. That is a Pandora’s box that could be avoided, if Costa Rica’s anti-cloning petition is approved in time.