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UN delay is good news for supporters of therapeutic cloning

25 October 2004
By Dr Jess Buxton
genetics editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 281
Last week, the much anticipated debate on cloning began again at the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN). A year after it last discussed global regulation of human cloning technology, the UN appears no closer to reaching any conclusions on this controversial issue. In fact, at the time of writing, the most likely outcome of the latest discussions is another delay. Even the US, which has been pushing hard for a total ban on any use of cloning technology, now seems to be backing off over fears that a vote could affect George Bush's chances of re-election. But a delay might be the best result for supporters of 'therapeutic cloning', the proposed use of stem cells from cloned human embryos to develop new disease therapies.

At the heart of the debate are clashing views over the moral status of human embryos. The US, Costa Rica and 59 other nations, many of which have strong Catholic majorities, want to ban all forms of cloning, including embryo cloning for research purposes. US advisor Susan Moore told the UN's legal committee last week that a ban distinguishing between different forms of cloning would 'essentially authorise the creation of a human embryo for the purpose of destroying it, thus elevating the value of research and experimentation above that of a human life'.

However, despite its dedication to banning therapeutic cloning research at the international level, the US does allow its own privately-funded scientists to carry out such work. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has pledged to allow federal funding for embryo stem cell research, should he win the election on November 2. According to a news report from Reuters last week, the Bush administration is now hoping to avoid any UN vote on cloning until after the election, to avoid an embarrassing loss. But diplomats also said that even if the US-backed proposal won, the vote could damage Bush's re-election chances in a nation now sharply divided over this issue. Several prominent Republicans have spoken out in favour of  (ES cell) research, including Nancy Reagan and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Support for the alternative proposal, which seeks to ban human reproductive cloning but allow individual nations to regulate therapeutic cloning as they see fit, is growing. A group of 12 African nations that previously supported a total cloning ban now feel that therapeutic cloning could offer medical benefits that are too valuable to warrant outlawing the technology. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has also voiced his support for therapeutic cloning, whilst stressing it is a matter for individual nations to decide upon. Also, the longer the UN delays a vote on this issue, the more time researchers have time to explore the potential promise of ES cell therapies. Since last year's UN debate, a team in South Korea has managed to obtain ES cells from cloned human embryos, and several research groups around the world are now racing to do the same.

In the UK, the government has said that even if the UN does eventually ban therapeutic cloning, it will continue to allow such research to take place, since such a treaty would not be legally binding. However, ES cell scientists in the US must now be hoping for a change of government, along with the continued delaying of a UN cloning treaty that could potentially send a strong signal of disapproval for their research. For people affected by diseases that could benefit from therapeutic cloning research, no news from the UN continues to be good news.

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