The United Nation's Institute of Advanced Studies has issued a report containing a stark warning to the rest of the world: introduce global legislation to prohibit reproductive cloning or prepare to consider laws that protect cloned individuals from potential discrimination, prejudice and abuse. The report, entitled 'Is Human Reproductive Cloning Inevitable: Future Options for UN Governance' was compiled by legal experts and concludes that in the absence of regulation it is only a matter of time before the first human individual is cloned. 'Whichever path the international community chooses it will have to act soon - either to prevent reproductive cloning or to defend the human rights of cloned individuals', said A.H. Zakri, head of the Institute, which is based in Japan.
In 2005, the UN adopted a non-binding declaration that prohibits 'all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life'. Dispute arose over whether the ban covered therapeutic cloning in which a cloned human embryo may be created using DNA taken from cells of a human individual in a process called SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) and some countries, including the UK, refused to vote in favour.
It is believed that SCNT may be employed in stem cell research to aid scientists in establishing cures or treatments for conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. However, if a cloned embryo is inserted into a womb then this constitutes reproductive cloning, which is widely held to be unlawful. 'Therapeutic cloning' research is legal in several countries, including the UK and the US but almost all countries have spoken out against reproductive cloning and many Governments have legislated to prohibit the technique. Reproductive cloning is illegal in the UK under the Human Reproductive Cloning Act, passed in November 2001, which carries a maximum of ten years imprisonment.
The authors of the UN report highlight that despite the near universal opposition to reproductive cloning, 140 members of the UN are yet to introduce laws to prohibit it. They raise the concern that some scientists may proceed to conduct reproductive cloning in regulatory vacuums if a global ban is not adopted. 'China has guidelines on human reproductive cloning but no law as such, while there are many African countries that don't have any legislation in place', said Chamundeeswari Kuppuswamy, one of the co-authors of the report. The report does not advocate the prohibition of therapeutic cloning.
Others feel that whilst a ban may not necessarily be the correct course of action, a strict regulatory environment in which to conduct the research is. Professor Alison Murdoch, part of the team at Newcastle University who cloned the UK's first human embryo, said 'we shouldn't be afraid of the idea of having two individuals with genetically identical material, although I cannot see a good clinical need for that. The risk you run by trying to ban cloning outright is that it may send those scientists who want to do that kind of research to countries where it is completely unregulated'.
The technology involved in human reproductive cloning is not yet perfected and safety concerns currently form the grounds for unanimous opposition. However, if this obstacle is overcome, the ethical debate surrounding human cloning may become immediately more complex. For the time being, a sense of fear of a future in which human clones exist appears to drive the movement for prohibition. As Brendan Tobin, who co-authored the report, warns, a 'failure to outlaw reproductive cloning means it is just a matter of time until cloned individuals share the planet'.