U.N. Declaration Bans All Forms of Cloning

NEW YORK — Little attention was paid by most major media outlets when the United Nations last month passed a resolution condemning all forms of human cloning. But according to pro-life delegations and non-governmental organizations at the United Nations, the resolution could turn out to be a useful tool in the international campaign to protect the life and dignity of unborn human beings.

The United Nations’s Sixth Committee, which deals with legal issues, voted 71-35 to pass a declaration Feb. 18, stating, “Member States are called upon to prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.”

The declaration now goes to the U.N. General Assembly for a ratification vote. No date has been set for that vote.

The declaration is the result of years of effort to get an international convention or treaty on cloning. Debate began four years ago when Germany and France sought United Nations backing for a treaty that would ban so-called “reproductive” cloning, but would allow so-called “therapeutic” cloning. Therapeutic cloning — dubbed “clone and kill” by its critics— refers to the creation and killing of human embryos to provide cells for medical research, whereas reproductive cloning refers to cloning human individuals and allowing them to develop and be born.

A human embryo is a unique boy or girl from conception to eight weeks, with DNA, life-expectancy — and the 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).

 The United States and most other countries wanted a full ban. Eventually, Costa Rica became the sponsor of the full ban while Belgium served as sponsor of the partial ban. A vote was to be taken on the issue last November, but was delayed when the opposing factions reached an impasse. At the time, Italy introduced a compromise solution calling for a non-binding declaration.

It was this compromise that was voted on and passed. One highly-placed source at the Holy See’s U.N. Mission said that the Vatican would have preferred to have a vote on a treaty or convention, but doing that “was impossible,” given the realities of the U.N. structure.

What’s Next?

The legal committee, explained Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, is not a subcommittee, as every member country at the Unite Nations is represented on it. That means it is more likely the declaration will be passed when it gets to the General Assembly, he said. But the possibility does still exist that, between now and then, various nations could change their votes.

One variable is that 43 nations abstained from voting, most of them Islamic countries. Islam has not yet come to a consensus on the issue of unborn human life, said Ruse.

While the declaration has been hailed as a major pro-life victory, it is actually a non-binding resolution. Consequently, it will most likely directly affect only those countries that already agree with it, said the Holy See source. “Those who disagree will ignore it, and they’re free to do that.”

And while a treaty or convention presents a stronger statement, he added, such a document would only bind those countries that sign and ratify it.

Still, supporters of the declaration insist it has value, as it gives a pro-life perspective to the ongoing debate over the morality of human cloning.

“The importance of this resolution comes principally from the text, which asks states to prohibit all forms of cloning contrary to human dignity and the protection of life,” Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations, told Vatican Radio.

Archbishop Migliore noted that two amendments had been introduced that would have expunged “all reference to the protection of human life.” But they were rejected, he said, showing that even though there are countries “who subordinate human life to other priorities ... not everyone thinks like that.”

In fact, Ruse said, one of the big arguments in the declaration was over whether to use the phrase “human being” or “human life.” C-Fam and others objected to the use of “human being” because some European countries have already interpreted that as referring to those who are already born.

The United Kingdom, which granted its first license for “therapeutic” cloning last August, voted against the resolution even though its representative to the United Nations, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, believed “the reference to ‘human life’ in the text is ambiguous,” and suggested that other pro-cloning states voted for it because of that ambiguity. Said Parry, “We believe, however, that states should reach their own national consensus on whether to permit or prohibit therapeutic cloning.”

China and South Korea, which are also engaged in research involving cloning, said the vote would not affect them. The French and Belgian missions to the United Nations didn’t answer questions about cloning.

Holy See’s Impact

The Holy See’s interventions on this matter seem to have had some impact. The source at the Permanent Observer Mission said two papers were presented on the issue during the four-year debate, and the second, more extensive paper ended up being quoted by many countries in their own interventions on the issue.

Some countries criticized the final document for bringing in religiously-based reasoning, but the Holy See defended it by noting “the reasoning was taken from natural reason, ethics and medical science,” according to the source.

The official United States position is that the cloning declaration did not involve a contentious fight, according to a State Department spokeswoman. But the Vatican source and a U.N. press release both painted a different picture.

“Countries were sharply divided over the controversial practice,” stated the press release, “with some representatives arguing that it should be subject to a total international ban and others voicing support for therapeutic applications of the science.”

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

writes from Altura, Minnesota.