A United Nations ad hoc committee has opened discussions on the merits and morality of cloning human beings, addressing many new questions that arise when considering the impact of such practice.

What is the legal status of a cloned person who has no parents, guardians or advocates? Does a cloned human being have equal rights to the protections listed in various United Nations documents, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Can biotechnology firms claim genetically modified, or GM, human embryos as intellectual property rights? Corporations already own patents on GM foods and seeds. Will the World Trade Organization need to prepare for trade regulations governing human embryos? How should nations respond to the bio-industrialization of human life?

In response to what it views as an “acute” issue, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in December to form a committee to draft a text to submit to the General Assembly in September. The first ever meeting of the Committee on an International Convention Against the Reproductive Cloning of Human Beings last week hosted national delegates and experts from Syria, Chile, Israel, Spain and the United States, among others. The committee is expected to “define a negotiation mandate” for a possible treaty to ban human reproductive cloning.

The first day of debate provoked strong arguments both in favor of freedom of research and in favor of a ban on human cloning. National delegates as well as scientists favor a coordinated international approach to resolve the ethical and juridical issues.

“Clone havens,” modeled on tax havens, will develop unless a harmonized global policy is adopted, cautioned Leonardo de Castro, chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of the Philippines. Australia’s federal cabinet moved this week to ban the use of leftover in-vitro fertilization embryos for research, provoking speculation that renowned Australian scientists may immigrate to countries where embryo research is permitted.

Action by various states, nations and international organizations was spurred by the November announcement by Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology that it had successfully cloned human embryos. In January, the company revealed that a promising bovine study confirmed their expectations that cloned embryo cells could be directed to grow a functioning organ.

Robert P. Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology claimed his project is “proof of the principle that ‘therapeutic cloning’ can work.” Therapeutic cloning, known as “clone and kill” because the embryo is not transplanted into a surrogate mother for development, is favored by many scientists. Therapeutic cloning, as distinct from reproductive cloning, will lead to unprecedented medical advances, say researchers. The human embryo is cloned, then used only for research or therapeutic treatments.

The object of reproductive cloning is to implant the cloned embryo into a surrogate mother and permit the human child to develop. Reproductive cloning is defended as a means of providing children for infertile couples or for homosexual pairs. Critics of reproductive cloning point out that it inevitably will be used to create a “master race” of humans. The reality of genetic defects passed on to the cloned child ought to be discussed, according to Fernando Zegers-Hochschild, director of the Unit of Reproductive Medicine at Clinica Las Condes in Santiago, Chile. Zegers-Hochschild was among the experts offering technical information at the U.N. committee’s meeting.

Britain last week reported that six couples have applied for permission to create “designer babies” whose genetic make-up would be the best match for a transplant needed by a sibling.

Reproductive cloning in animals has a 3-8 percent success rate. Many nations oppose human reproductive cloning as “inherently unethical.” France and Germany originally proposed that human reproductive cloning be banned under a treaty to be negotiated at the U.N.

The United States Senate Judiciary Committee also is reviewing the human cloning issue. The Senate will consider three bills on human cloning in the spring. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is the sponsor of a bill, S. 1899, that provides a comprehensive ban on human cloning, both “therapeutic” cloning and reproductive cloning. The House has already passed a strong total ban on human cloning, H.R. 2505. The Brownback bill is nearly identical to the House bill sponsored by Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla.

Brownback contends that cloning raises serious questions: “Does the cloned human embryo have any moral significance? Is it a ‘who’ or a ‘what,’ a person or a thing?”

Competing Senate bills are sponsored by Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The Feinstein and Harkin bills permit the “clone and kill” technology that uses human embryos for experimentation but prohibit reproductive cloning that implants cloned embryos into a surrogate mother’s womb.

The Bush administration has assembled a bioethics panel to advise the president and Congress. President Bush has signaled his support for a strong ban on human cloning and his intent to sign such a bill once it is sent forward to the White House.

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