UNESCO Advises UN to Re-Open Cloning Debate

Later this month, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will meet to discuss reopening the international cloning debate. The International Bioethics Committee (IBC) will gather in Paris to “explore whether the scientific, ethical, social, political and legal developments on human cloning in recent years justify a new initiative at international level, rather than to initiate an ethical and scientific analysis of the issue of human cloning.”A UNESCO working group on cloning that first met in July 2008 concluded that “in view of the scientific, social and political developments, the existing non-binding texts on human cloning are not sufficient to prevent human reproductive cloning.”

The question of how to define human cloning remains at the center of the debate. Some argue that there are two types of human cloning: “therapeutic cloning,” where the cloned embryo is experimented upon and killed, and “reproductive cloning,” where the cloned embryo would be allowed to fully grow. Both “reproductive” and “therapeutic” cloning involve the creation of a human embryo. While almost everyone wants to ban so-called “reproductive cloning,” the crux of the debate centers on whether or not to allow “therapeutic” or experimental cloning, which some call “clone and kill.”

Many assumed that the UN General Assembly settled the issue in 2005 when it passed a non-binding political declaration that banned human cloning for any purpose, both “therapeutic” and “reproductive.” This occurred after three years of intense negotiations and resulted in a declaration which took into account countries’ deeply-entrenched and divergent views on the issue. 

At the July meeting of the UNESCO working group, members attributed the confusion within the ethical debate between therapeutic and reproductive cloning to “differences in the status attributed to the human embryo in different cultures and societies.”  But it added that “the number of countries which have ethically accepted therapeutic cloning seems to have grown” since the 2005 General Assembly declaration and that “considerable advancement made in the field of governance constitutes an important ethical and political change.”

Attempts to reopen the cloning debate started last year with the release of a UN University (UNU) report wherein the authors urged the international community to pass a legally-binding ban on so-called “reproductive cloning” only. The UNU report argued that the current challenge for the international community is “to find a compromise position” with an “increased respect for ethical diversity.” Upon release of the UNU report, UNU Director A.H. Zakri said, “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.”

UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations comprised of member states whose purpose is “to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture.”

The IBC will decide at month’s end whether it is ready to present its opinion to the UNESCO Director-General, or whether to pursue further investigation on this issue.

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