United Nations Ducks Clone Vote

The United Nations on 19 November made a last-minute decision to give up efforts to fashion a global treaty charting an international policy on human cloning. Instead, the U.N.'s legal committee fell back on an Italian proposal that will be used as a basis for a nonbinding cloning "declaration."

Mirroring the cloning stalemate in the U.S. Congress, the U.N. appears to have given up, for now, its attempts to take a strong stand on human cloning. The committee was scheduled to vote on competing resolutions: a total cloning ban sponsored by Costa Rica and 60 other nations and a reproductive cloning ban, pushed by Belgium, that would have left the door open for research cloning, otherwise known as nuclear transfer. But the deadline for the vote came and went.

The U.N. action--or lack thereof--is a blow for the Bush Administration, which strongly backed the Costa Rican proposal. But a State Department spokesperson put the best face on it, calling it "a moderate success" because it failed to endorse any kind of cloning. The Royal Society of London, on the other hand, said it was "disappointed" by the U.N.'s failure to agree on a worldwide ban on reproductive cloning.

Bernard Siegel, a Florida lawyer who created a lobby called the Genetics Policy Institute in Coral Gables in response to the issue, calls the committee decision a "triumph" for researchers. Siegel says a "declaration" against research cloning would have much less authority than a treaty, which he says would lead to new laws in member countries and would have a "chilling" effect on research. And, he notes, any declaration that U.N. members eventually succeed in agreeing on is likely to be vaguely worded.

The Italian proposal, which will be taken up as a basis for discussion by the committee in February, would call on countries "to prohibit any attempts to create human life through cloning processes and any research intended to achieve that aim." On whether the term should be "human life" or "human being" will hang many more contentious debates.