Tuesday, October 19, 2004

NEW YORK — An emotional U.N. debate on stem-cell research resumes tomorrow after a year’s cooling-off period, with nations as divided as ever over whether a ban on the reproductive cloning of humans should extend to medical research.

The United States and its Iraq war ally, Britain, find themselves on opposite sides of an argument that has pitted predominantly Catholic and Muslim countries against many European and Asian nations with burgeoning biotechnology industries.

Sixty-one countries — including the United States, Australia and lead sponsor Costa Rica — argue that all scientific research involving cloned cells should be immediately banned, saying that the practice is “an attack on the human dignity of the individual.”

That view is opposed by two dozen nations, including Singapore, South Korea and lead sponsor Belgium, that say therapeutic cloning, if properly regulated, “opens up prospects for the improvement of the health of individuals and mankind as a whole.”

The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, urged nations over the weekend to reject the U.S.- and Costa Rica-proposed ban on cloning for stem-cell research.

At stake, according to the pro-research side, are billions of dollars in global biotech research, not to mention the possibility of cures for many conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s disease to cancer.

That argument has failed to convince the scores of nations that see human cloning as a door that should never be opened. These countries generally agree with the Vatican that adult stem cells alone should be used in labs.

In his Sept. 21 address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush looked ahead to this week’s debate and urged all governments to “affirm a basic ethical principle: No human life should ever be produced or destroyed for the benefit of another.”

The issue will be debated in the General Assembly for two days beginning tomorrow, picking up a discussion that began more than year ago but was suspended in the face of intractable differences.

A spokesman at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations said it was just a coincidence that the emotional issue comes up two weeks before the U.S. presidential election.

“The schedule of the [General Assembly] was set before the U.S. elections,” he said. “This is just how it fell.”

However, many participants in the debate believe that undeclared nations are reserving their positions until after Nov. 2 for fear of offending the eventual winner.

Some members of the pro-ban coalition also say that unpopular U.S. stands in Iraq and the Middle East have frayed the usually reliable Catholic-Muslim coalition on family issues.

In tomorrow’s debate, legal experts are to discuss the language that will form the basis for a global convention against reproductive human cloning. Nearly everyone agrees that it is vital to act quickly, before disreputable scientists are able to create a human child.

Two competing resolutions are on the table, both framing the debate in terms of human rights.

“We see our proposal as the compromise proposal,” said Belgian envoy Marc Pecsteen de Buyteswerve.

“Our resolution is perfectly compatible with states that have a total ban at home,” he said in an interview. “Our proposal would not be contradictory with countries that allow research to take place or ban it. Unfortunately the other side doesn’t see it like that.”

Indeed, many of those who want to outlaw all human cloning see anything less as an invitation for unscrupulous doctors to turn wombs into stem-cell factories.

Although the issue is unlikely to be decided until mid-November, if at all, the tone of the debate is expected to reinforce the confusion and fear generated by the interplay of faith, science and money.

Both sides agree that the year’s cooling-down period has done little to bring them closer together and may have given unscrupulous scientists an extra year to work.

“Truthfully, I don’t think a year’s cooling off will have made this any easier,” said a diplomat who supports biotech research. “Everyone knows their position, and we can’t keep kicking this down the road.”

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