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Cloning on the International Scene: The Fate of the “United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning”

un_pic.jpgAn important UN meeting is being held this week in Paris to reconsider the content of the 2005 Declaration on Human Cloning, a document described to me recently by a pro-life friend involved in its passage as an “amazing victory” for the pro-life side.  I’d like to give some background on the passage and content of the document and then give my own reading of what the current meeting is up to.

In March 2005 the UN adopted the Declaration on Human Cloning (hereafter Declaration) as a non-legally binding document for its Member States.  Remarkably, the document called on all Member States to “prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.” (1)  In its drafting and during the contentious debates preceding its passage, “all forms” was clearly construed by voting members—defenders and opponents—to mean precisely that, human cloning per se, that is, somatic cell nuclear transfer for any reason. (2)  The Declaration passed in the General Assembly with 84 countries supporting it, 34 countries opposing it and 37 abstaining.

Opponents thought prohibiting all cloning was too restrictive.  Although most countries supported a prohibition of cloning to bring to birth a live child (sometimes referred to as “reproductive cloning”), some wanted the declaration to remain neutral on cloning for destructive research purposes (sometimes called “therapeutic cloning”).  Pro-life supporters of the Declaration thought that the distinction between “reproductive” and “therapeutic” was specious, that the term “therapeutic” gave the wrongful impression that research cloning was a morally different kind of act from cloning to bring children to birth.  Since both bring into existence the same kind of individual—a human being at the embryonic stage of development—both are essentially forms of reproductive cloning. (3) Moreover, in any other research venue, the term “therapeutic” (as in “therapeutic procedure”) refers to the value of some procedure for the one upon whom it is performed.  In fact, certain risky procedures are only justifiable because they promise manifest therapeutic benefit to the subject.  This makes the euphemistic term “therapeutic cloning” even more insidious.  The human being upon whom this research is carried out receives no therapeutic benefit.  Quite the contrary.  The subject is always killed by the procedure or soon after it.  Pro-life defenders therefore thought that the phrase, “incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life,” duly applied to both forms.

Since its adoption, the Declaration unsurprisingly has garnered considerable opposition.  Shortly after its passage, some defenders of destructive embryo research began arguing that the central statement “prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity” should be read as implying that only forms of cloning incompatible with human dignity should be prohibited—that is prohibited insofar as (“inasmuch as”) they are incompatible. (4)  Since research cloning, they continue, is not necessarily incompatible with human dignity, the Declaration does not necessarily exclude research cloning.  A now common reading of the Declaration argues that its prohibition was formulated to leave room for “very different interpretations.”

Why then has the U.N.’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) decided again to take up the issue of human cloning?  We might get an idea from a preliminary report published in September by the IBC Working Group explaining the reasons for returning cloning to the agenda. (5)  The Report in section one repeats the view that the 2005 prohibition was ambiguously formulated (“the wording of the document left room for very different interpretations of the text”) noting that the point of contention is whether both reproductive and non-reproductive cloning should be prohibited by the text.  The Report then repeats a question that Working Group members were asked to consider in their preliminary discussions: “Is there any scientific, social or political change that would justify a new initiative at the international level?”  The text proposes at the scientific level certain breakthroughs in stem-cell research, which, it suggests, justifies a stronger international prohibition on ‘reproductive cloning’.

This, of course, is positive.  But the Report has ominous undertones indicating a bias in favor of eliminating the non-binding prohibition against research cloning.  It emphatically states—twice, in fact—that since reproductive cloning is targeted to such fundamentally different purposes from other methods of embryo research, it “should be kept apart from all other research and handled separately from these” (handled separately, that is, for purposes of bioethical consideration).  This implies that ‘therapeutic cloning’ should be grouped with other methods of embryo research.

Another troubling implication arises when the text turns to “recent technological developments” in stem cell research.  The most important and widely publicized development is, of course, the research surrounding induced pluripotent stem cells (or iPS cells).  Many defenders of the embryo, including myself, have argued that the promise of iPSCs could render superfluous the need for destructive embryo experimentation.  But when the text mentions iPS cells, no suggestion whatsoever is made of their value in helping to overcome the embryo-destruction controversy.  Rather the text says “the construction of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and their possible uses has created more technical possibilities for reproductive manipulation of human embryos and hence brings new problems into the debate.”  In other words, iPS cells potentially worsen the problem of reproductive cloning.

Finally, towards the end of the text the authors criticize as misleading the term “reproductive cloning” because it wrongly connotes merely ‘producing an identical copy.’  The term, they say, ought to be understood as technically manipulating human embryos with the purpose of implantation.  Again, the implication is that engineering genetically identical copies of human beings is not problematic in itself, but only doing so with the intent of facilitating their gestation and birth.

I’d like to think that my interpretation of the text is eisegetical (i.e., reading into it a bias that’s not there).  And that the recommendation of the IBC Report to strengthen the prohibition against ‘therapeutic cloning’ implicitly includes strengthening the prohibition against all forms of cloning.  But when so-called therapeutic cloning is referenced in the Working Group Report, it’s only by way of conceptually and ethically distinguishing it from cloning to produce children.  Unfortunately, I think it’s not at all unreasonable to conclude that the IBC, while recommending a binding resolution against one form of cloning, will advocate annulling the prohibition against another form, something we can be almost certain an Obama administration will eagerly support. (6)

(1) Gen. Assembly, United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning, G.A. Res. 59/280, U.N. Doc. A/RES/59/280 (Mar. 23, 2005), supra note 32.

(2) This has been ably demonstrated by Nigel M. de S. Cameron and Anna V. Henderson in “Brave New World at the General Assembly: The United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning,” 9(1) Minnesota Journal of Law, Science and Technology, 145-238 (2008), 195-96.

(3) This was asserted by the Holy See in a drafting proposal for the Declaration during preparatory sessions: the proposal states “the fact that all forms of human cloning are in essence reproductive.” “Proposal Submitted by the Holy See Containing a Synthesis of the Franco-German and Mexican Proposals, as Modified by State Interventions,” A/C.6/57/WG.1/CRP.4; reprinted in Cameron and Henderson, Brave New World at the General Assembly, pp. 209-211.

(4) See Brave New World at the General Assembly, pp. 195-196.

(5) Available at http://portal.unesco.org/shs/en/files/12376/12229368791REPORT_IBC-WG_Cloning_en.pdf/REPORT%2BIBC-WG%2BCloning_en.pdf ]

(6) Senator Obama voted against the 2007 HOPE Act (S. 30), a bill aimed at promoting intensive research into alternative means for deriving pluripotent stem cells without harming human embryos.  He voted in favor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007 (S. 5), intended to open funding for embryo destructive research (and vetoed by President Bush).  He has said publically that he opposes cloning to produce children, but never has denied supporting embryo destructive cloning research.


Dr. Chirstian E. Brugger [1]   is Senior Fellow in Ethics of the Culture of Life Foundation


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