On Tuesday, March 8, after four years of debate, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a declaration calling for bans on the creation of clonal human embryos for research, as well as on reproductive cloning. The vote was:
Support the full ban - 46%
Oppose the full ban - 18%
Abstain - 19%
Absent - 17%
The vote supporting the full ban was stronger than had initially been supposed. Under UN rules, this is now the official position of that body. On the other hand, the fact that the full ban was unable to muster a majority of the UN membership suggests that the controversy is far from resolved.
Is there a way to break the current impasse and move forward? Yes, but it will require a new set of framing values, and a willingness on the part of both sides to compromise.
The issue of cloning has largely been argued using the divisive framing of the abortion wars. The result has been polarization and paralysis. A more useful approach would frame the debate using values of social well-being, justice and solidarity.
Opponents of research cloning need to acknowledge that a universal ban could deprive us of potentially valuable research tools for addressing many widespread diseases. At the same time, supporters have to acknowledge that the successful creation of clonal human embryos is precisely the step needed to enable the creation of fully formed human clones.
And not just clones, but transgenic "post-humans" as well - cloning is the technology that makes "designer babies" a real possibility. This is the nightmare future that all people of good conscience oppose: humanity engineered into divergent genetic castes, with the "genetically enriched" regarding the "naturals" as humans regard chimpanzees today.
A framework based on values of social well-being, justice and solidarity would be open to research on cures for disease, but would demand strong controls to forestall applications that would objectify human beings and divide humanity against itself.
What might an international agreement based on this framework of values look like?
All countries would agree to ban the creation of fully-formed human clones. At the same time, all would agree to move expeditiously to adopt tough policies regarding the creation of clonal human embryos for research.
Countries opposed to research cloning, such as the eighty-eight that voted for the UN declaration, would move to ban it. Countries that have not yet reached consensus, including many of the thirty-seven that abstained from the UN vote, could impose moratoria until agreement has been reached. Countries that support research cloning would be required to establish strong systems of oversight and regulation, including high-level, publicly accountable commissions to review and approve any research involving cloning before it begins. A number of countries, notably the United Kingdom, have already established governing bodies of this sort.
If early experiments using cloning point to truly beneficial medical applications, its use could be carefully expanded. If it proves to be a false hope, or if alternatives to research cloning are developed, or if socially unacceptable uses of the technology are found to be impossible to prevent, then these experiments could be curtailed or concluded.
The UN cloning debate began with the best of intentions, but the polarizing nature of the values framework through which it was interpreted quickly led to a dead end.The most urgent need is for a new set of national and international civil society organizations and leaders to engage the issues raised by human cloning, with new resolve and new values to frame the debate. Polarization is as irresponsible as complacency - both lead to inaction. The stakes are enormous and time is short.