Human clones: New U.N. analysis lays out world's choices

November 10, 2007

The world community quickly needs to reach a compromise that outlaws reproductive cloning or prepare to protect the rights of cloned individuals from potential abuse, prejudice and discrimination, according to authors of a new policy analysis by the United Nations University's Institute of Advanced Studies (www.ias.unu.edu).

A legally-binding global ban on work to create a human clone, coupled with freedom for nations to permit strictly controlled therapeutic research, has the greatest political viability of options available to the international community, says the report: Is Human Reproductive Cloning Inevitable: Future Options for UN Governance, released Nov. 12 by A.H. Zakri, Director of UNU-IAS, based in Yokohama, Japan.

Virtually every nation opposes human cloning and more than 50 have legislated bans on such efforts. However, negotiation of an international accord foundered at the UN in 2005 due to disagreement over research cloning (also called therapeutic cloning).

"Human reproductive cloning could profoundly impact humanity," says UN Under-Secretary-General Konrad Osterwalder, Rector of UNU. "This report offers a plain language analysis of the opportunities, challenges and options before us - a firm and thoughtful base from which the international community can revisit the issue before science overtakes policy."

Without an international prohibition, human reproductive cloning accomplished in certain countries could be judged perfectly legal by the International Court of Justice, warn UNU-IAS co-authors Brendan Tobin, Chamundeeswari Kuppuswamy, Darryl Macer, Mihaela Serbulea.

"Failure to outlaw reproductive cloning means it is just a matter of time until cloned individuals share the planet," says barrister Mr. Tobin of the Irish Center for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway. "If failure to compromise continues, the world community must accept responsibility and ensure that any cloned individual receives full human rights protection. It will also need to embark on an extensive awareness building and sensitivity program to ensure that the wider society treats clones with respect and ensure they are protected against prejudice, abuse or discrimination."

There is almost universal international consensus on the desirability of banning reproductive cloning based in part on religious and moral grounds, but mostly on concerns about underdeveloped technologies producing clones with serious deformities or degenerative diseases, Mr. Tobin adds. As technologies advance and possibilities of success increase, the current consensus is likely to erode and with it the possibility of securing a ban on reproductive cloning.

According to the UNU report, the widest international consensus would be achieved around an agreement that prevents progress towards full reproductive cloning but authorizes strictly controlled therapeutic cloning to prevent the uncontrolled production and destruction of embryos.

Failure to deal with the cloning issue reflects on "the credibility of the UN institution itself and its capacity to respond to society's need for competent leadership," says the report.

"Whichever path the international community chooses it will need to act soon - either to prevent reproductive cloning or to defend the human rights of cloned individuals," says Dr. Zakri.

The report calls the prospect of human cloning "one of the most emotive and divisive issues to face UN negotiators and the international community in recent years."

Efforts in 2005 to negotiate an international convention fell through over so-called research or therapeutic cloning.

Whereas reproductive cloning is meant to duplicate a person or animal, research cloning is meant to produce tissues that genetically match those of the person or animal whose cells are cloned.

Proponents of research cloning for regenerative medicine say it offers great hope of producing replacement tissue without the fear of immunological rejection, that it offers a potential cure for millions of people suffering common diseases of the industrialized world - diabetes, stroke, spinal injury, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

Opponents view research cloning as the unethical production and destruction of living embryos to produce stem cells upon which such therapies are based. The clash of positions led to a compromise non-binding UN Declaration on Cloning.

There have been no substantiated claims of cloned human embryos grown into fetal stages and beyond but such an historic event is not far off, most experts agree.

Clones have been achieved with mice, sheep, pigs, cows and dogs and U.S. researchers last summer accomplished the first cloning of a primate - a rhesus monkey embryo cloned from adult cells and then grown to generate stem cells.

National efforts to outlaw reproductive cloning of humans are easily skirted if researchers can simply move to other jurisdictions. Disgraced South Korean medical researcher Woo Sook Hwang, whose human clone claims were unsubstantiated, reportedly continues his work in Thailand.

The report explores in depth the difficult ethical considerations behind the issue.

"It is frequently argued, for instance, that reproduction should occur by chance and through natural selection. This argument may be based upon religious lines, which defer to a supernatural or higher power for choice, or to natural selection and the importance of ensuring continued human diversity.

"More convincing for some are arguments against the commoditisation of life. Fears exist that allowing reproductive cloning will lead to a spare parts market for harvesting human organs from cloned "brain-less bodies" for the rich as they seek to extend their lifespan, a result which many see as a contravention of individual and collective human dignity.

"These are not issues which can be lightly dismissed; however, it is clear that any debate on human dignity needs to separate the various elements of the debate in order to consider whether opposition to cloning stems from concern for human dignity or respect for divine dignity. As well as to determine whether it is designed to protect the individual that may be cloned or the society whose sense of personal and collective identity might be challenged by the concept of sharing the world with cloned individuals."
-end-
UNU Institute of Advanced Studies

The Institute of Advanced Studies is part of the United Nations University's global network of research and training centres. IAS undertakes research and postgraduate education on leading sustainable development issues, convening expertise from disciplines such as economics, law, biology, political science, physics and chemistry to better understand and contribute creative solutions to pressing global concerns. UNU-IAS works to identify and address strategic issues of concern for all humankind, for governments and decision makers and, particularly, for developing countries.

United Nations University

Established by the U.N. General Assembly, UNU is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo.

United Nations University

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