NEW YORK — Attempts to get the United Nations to produce a treaty banning human cloning around the world have so far failed, but a vote on a compromise resolution may actually give a boost to pro-life efforts to halt such biological manipulations.
On Nov. 19, the legal committee of the U.N. General Assembly “averted a divisive vote on the question of an international convention against human reproductive cloning by deciding to take up the issue again as a declaration at a resumed February session,” said a U.N. press release.
The process started three years ago when France and Germany proposed an international treaty to ban reproductive cloning — in which the resulting human being is allowed to develop and be born — but which would have allowed so-called “therapeutic” cloning for research, a practice opponents call “clone-and-kill” because cloned embryos are destroyed soon after conception so that experiments may be conducted with their cells.
A human embryo is a unique boy or girl from conception to eight weeks, with DNA, life-expectancy — and right to life.
In 1987, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith taught that cloning was immoral.“Attempts or hypotheses for obtaining a human being without any connection with sexuality through ‘twin fission,’ cloning or parthenogenesis are to be considered contrary to the moral law,” the Congregation wrote in its instruction Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), “since they are in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union.” (Question No. 6).
When the French-German proposal was presented, Costa Rica put forth a counterproposal that would result in an international treaty banning all forms of cloning. Eventually, the main sponsorship of the “clone-and-kill” resolution was picked up by Belgium.
What happened, explained Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, is that 60 countries co-sponsored the Costa Rican proposal, but there weren't enough votes for passage by the General Assembly. But the Belgian resolution only had 22 co-sponsors, along with the support of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
After two years of discussion and debate, neither side was able to recruit enough support to force a conclusive vote. One country did change sides, however; Australia's recently re-elected government of Prime Minister John Howard switched from the “clone-and-kill” resolution to the total ban.
In an attempt to break the impasse, Italy, which had signed on to the Costa Rican ban, introduced a compromise calling for a resolution that would be non-binding and would urge member states to pass comprehensive cloning bans in their own countries. The Italian proposal was “a fallback position,” Ruse said, so that something could be said against cloning.
As it now stands, the Italian resolution reads, “Member states are called upon to prohibit any attempts to create human life through cloning processes and any research intended to achieve that aim.”
As is often the case in the United Nations, much of the debate over the Italian proposal centered over its specific wording. Pro-cloning nations wanted “human being” substituted for “human life,” because they believe the term “human being” can be interpreted to allow life-destroying embryonic research on the grounds that embryos are only “potential” human beings.
Ruse defended the term “human life” as a pro-life victory because “human being” has been defined narrowly in European Union court cases as someone who is already born. But he did concede that if the compromise resolution is passed, cloning advocates will also claim victory “because experimental cloning was not banned.”
But while pro-life delegations and activists believe they have gained important ground with the Italian resolution's current wording, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the compromise language was practically “useless.”
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Bishop Sgreccia said, “Verbally, what is said turns out to be ambiguous because the term ‘human life,’ which replaces that of ‘human being,’ is vague and even — I would say — useless, because a cell could also be ‘human life.’”
For its part, the U.S. delegation is continuing to actively pursue a less ambiguous ban. Rick Grinnell, a spokesman for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, said they are “working feverishly to beat back” the Belgian proposal and get the Costa Rican one back on the table, and the Italian compromise will provide breathing room to achieve that.
Pia de Solenni, director of life and women's issues at the Family Research Council, agrees that the next couple of months could afford an opportunity to lobby the numerous countries that have not signed on to either side.
But which countries might sign on to the Costa Rican proposal? In most life issues debates at the United Nations, Muslim countries have sided with the United States and the Vatican. However, they have been silent on cloning because there is no theological consensus among their imams on when life begins, Ruse said.
Where de Solenni finds hope is in the predominantly Catholic Latin American countries, most of which have not declared their position. Besides Costa Rica, only Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Paraguay have signed the resolution banning all forms of cloning. That gives room for larger countries like Mexico to get on board, she said.
Even if the Costa Rican proposal for a total ban were to be re-introduced next year and ultimately passed, it would take some years to officially enact since it would require the convening of a treaty commission and then ratification by individual member states’ governments. And then it would only be binding on those states that sign the treaty — meaning that countries like Britain that want to sanction “therapeutic” cloning will still have the capacity to do so.
Still, its passage would have an impact, particularly on Third World and smaller countries, de Solenni said. That's because if the United Nations decides to support something like cloning, then funding for the activity can take place through the organization. Conversely, if the United Nations votes to ban something and a country is doing the banned activity, then funding requests from that country can be denied.
Consequently, de Solenni said, “there's a certain amount of weight” that goes with a U.N. resolution or vote for a treaty. And though many American critics of the United Nations deride the international organization as ineffective, that's definitely not the case when it comes to influencing the world's less powerful countries, she added.
Said de Solenni, “The fact is, this is a game we can't get out of.”
Thomas Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.
(Zenit and Register staff contributed to this report.)