NEW YORK — While the United Nations is gearing up to vote on a comprehensive ban on human cloning next month, some cloning proponents have sought to move the debate to a more cloning-friendly organization — the International Bioethics Committee at UNESCO in Paris.
The committee, established in 1993, is charged with drafting the first document defining a global ethical framework for life sciences, the “Declaration on the Universal Norms on Bioethics.”
Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a non-governmental organization at the U.N., said the switch constituted “venue-shopping.”
“If you think that you can't win in one court, then you go to another,” he said.
But a recent appointee to the panel, Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, an opponent of all types of cloning, said in an interview that everything in the process of drafting a document is transparent. An outline the International Bioethics Committee will discuss was posted on the committee's website Aug. 23.
Pellegrino, founder of the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University in Washington, promised that he would be vocal in promoting the magisterium's stance on cloning during his four-year term on the committee.
Another Catholic involved in the proceedings is Legion of Christ Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the faculty of bioethics of Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum of Rome. He and other religious representatives were invited to speak before the 11th session of the bioethics committee recently. He later told Zenit news service that he spoke about “the obligation not to discriminate against anyone and not to violate anyone's human rights” and the “respect due to the human being from his embryonic state.”
“I said that a UNESCO document…must not propose, approve or endorse any practice that is contrary to the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, especially the right to life, proclaimed in Article 3,” he said. “I also called attention to the danger that the text might approve, indirectly or implicitly, certain practices that go against those fundamental rights, simply by the fact of condemning some modalities of certain practices without mentioning other modalities. This would be the case, for example, if so-called reproductive cloning was condemned and therapeutic cloning was not mentioned.”
UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Over the past three years, human cloning has been the subject of heated debate at the U.N. In November 2001, France and Germany proposed an immediate ban on all reproductive cloning that would prohibit the implantation of cloned embryos in women for an eventual birth. The initiative did not, however, propose to ban “therapeutic” cloning — which would create human embryos for the purpose of scientific research. These embryos would be destroyed to extract their stem cells.
“The problem is that any statement that doesn't address the cloning issue right is bad news,” said Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future. With regards to therapeutic cloning, the French and German silence on the issue was “loud tacit approval,” Cameron said. “It's basically wink-wink.”
A coalition of countries — led by Costa Rica, the Holy See and the United States — drew up a counter proposal in March 2002 that would ban all human cloning, both reproductive and therapeutic. Support for this ban has grown considerably since then. As of November 2003, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute reported that more than 60 nations had co-sponsored the ban, with 40 more nations voicing their intention to vote for it.
“As the developing world learns more about the procedure, they have grown more uncomfortable with it,” said Douglas Sylva of the institute. “Perhaps this is because millions of eggs will be needed to do the research. Human eggs would basically become commodities.”
Because of this momentum, Sylva said the institute and other like-minded organizations noted a kind of “desperation” on the part of pro-cloning countries. Once the pro-cloning nations began to see that they could lose a vote at the U.N., they maneuvered to stall it. They called for a delay of two years, which was eventually reduced to one year. This group of countries, about 25 at last count, includes Belgium, South Korea, China, Israel and the United Kingdom. Ironically, France and Germany have national laws which outlaw human cloning in any form. Their U.N. delegates have thus been at odds with their own national policies.
French national policy is clearly against cloning. A law that completely forbids cloning was passed there July 8. Scientists caught attempting any type of cloning could be jailed for up to seven years.
Germany also has strong laws against cloning in any form. When the German Parliament heard about the French/German initiative at the U.N., an uproar ensued. German politicians across the political spectrum were furious, and in February 2003, passed a parliamentary motion supported by all three major German political parties. The motion stated that any form of human cloning, regardless of its goal, was an assault on human dignity. The motion also questioned why the German government was working towards an international convention on cloning that was weaker than its own laws, which protect human embryos from all scientific research.
“This shows that when people hear about the cloning debate, the process becomes much more democratic,” Cameron said. “It also shows that international delegates are much more influenced by scientists and elites, who have no accountability, than by national legislation.”
The United States is another odd case. It has no national laws outlawing human cloning, yet the U.S. delegation is currently one of the strongest opponents of cloning at the U.N. — because of Bush administration policies.
The move by the International Bioethics Committee to draft a document has been viewed with alarm by pro-life UNESCO observers. Past statements of committee members show that the majority favors the cloning of human embryos for research.
The draft will be submitted to UNESCO's member states for approval in October 2005.
Though there is no announced effort to undermine the cloning debate, it is clear that any statement which appears to support therapeutic cloning could have the potential to cause problems for anti-cloning nations at the U.N. this fall.
For now, pro-life observers at the U.N. and UNESCO must wait and see how the cloning debate will flesh out this fall. In the meantime, anti-cloning groups are doing whatever is necessary to make their arguments heard.
“There is a sense of urgency that has been growing by the minute,” Sylva said, “because the UK has decided to go ahead with therapeutic cloning, as well as South Korea.”
In fact, a group of German politicians feel so strongly about this issue that they sent Sen. John Kerry a letter June 2 urging him not to change U.S. policy in the event he wins the presidential race in November. “We very much support the engagement of the Bush administration to fight against all kinds of human cloning,” the Germans said. “We do not support the position of some European governments…that only reproductive cloning should be banned because, firstly, a ban of only reproductive cloning will not be enforceable. If you have thousands or hundreds of thousands of cloned human embryos, there will be people who implant them in the womb.”
They went on to remind Kerry that the creation of human embryos solely for research purposes “is clearly against fundamental ethical principles.”
“One of the main arguments is that if…therapeutic cloning would ever lead to treatments, then one would need millions of human egg cells donated by women,” they wrote. “Egg-cell donating is, in fact, a very risky and painful procedure.”
Developing nations, which will be crucial to any vote at the U.N., are also watching this debate closely.
“People in the developing world need clean water,” Sylva said. “They have all kinds of problems they are dealing with. They look upon the cloning debate and the promises of research with a jaundiced eye. Even if medical miracles occur, it won't help their people with clean water. They are also starting to see that any of these biotechnological experiments will come at the expense of their own people.”
Sabrina Ferrisi writes from Jersey City, New Jersey.