The UK will vote against the declaration on human cloning at the United Nations' General Assembly today (8 March 2005).
The UN declaration is non-binding and has no legal status, but it calls on countries to prohibit all forms of human cloning. This is totally unacceptable to the UK government which strongly supports stem cell research, including embryonic stem cell research which involves the use of cloning technology. Stem cell research could lead to new treatments for serious and fatal diseases that affect millions of people.
Reproductive cloning is already illegal in the UK under the Human Reproductive Cloning Act passed in November 2001. The UN non-binding declaration on human cloning will neither affect UK Government policy on cloning, nor UK stem cell research.
Health Secretary, John Reid, said:
"We will vote against the United Nations declaration on human cloning because it calls on states to ban all forms of cloning. This would deny many patients with illnesses like Parkinson's disease, chronic heart disease and juvenile diabetes, the potential of effective treatments. It is a shame that the UN could not agree to a legally-binding worldwide ban on reproductive cloning, simply because a small group of countries intransigently refused to allow individual countries to make up their own minds on therapeutic cloning.
"Reproductive cloning is already illegal in the UK. Anyone attempting it in this country faces a 10-year prison sentence and unlimited fine. However, the UK Government supports all types of stem cell research, including those involving therapeutic cloning. Stem cell research is still in its infancy but it has the potential to revolutionise medicine in this century in a way that antibiotics did in the last. The Government is determined to use every opportunity to let science find ways to cure diseases.
"The UN declaration is non-binding and will make no difference whatsoever to the position of stem cell research in the UK: therapeutic cloning will continue to be allowed. The UK remains 'open for business' in stem cell research."
UN human cloning declaration vote
The declaration on human cloning was approved by the Sixth (Legal) committee of the United Nations on 18th February. It will now pass to the full 191-nation General Assembly. This vote will take place on 8 March 2005. The UK, along with other countries such as Belgium, Singapore and South Korea, have said that the move will have no effect on therapeutic cloning research already taking place in their countries. This is because the declaration is non-binding.
Reproductive and therapeutic cloning
Human reproductive cloning involves the creation of a genetically-identical human baby from an existing adult, using laboratory techniques such as Somatic Cell Nuclear Replacement (SCNR). Reproductive cloning is banned in the UK by the Human Reproductive Cloning Act (2001).
Therapeutic cloning employs the same SCNR technology as reproductive cloning. However, the embryos that are created are used to derive stem cells, which have great potential for treatments of serious illnesses. Embryo research, including therapeutic cloning, is allowed in the UK only under license from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Government policy, endorsed by positive free votes in both Houses, is to support this research.
The History of the Cloning Debate at the UN
At the 58th General Assembly of the UN in 2003, Costa Rica tabled a resolution calling for the UN to develop an international convention which would ban all forms of cloning, including therapeutic. This resolution was supported by the United States and 64 other states.
A second resolution was tabled by Belgium. This called for the UN to develop an international convention which would ban reproductive cloning and require states to control therapeutic cloning by regulating it, banning it or imposing a moratorium at the national level. This resolution was supported by the UK and 21 other states.
At the 58th General Assembly in 2003, neither proposal was put to a vote. Iran and the Organisation of Islamic Countries put forward a motion deferring consideration of the issue to a later date. This motion was carried by 80 votes to 79.
In 2004, the Costa Rican and Belgian resolutions were tabled for the 59th (and currently running) General Assembly. As before, the UK supported the Belgian position and hoped that this resolution calling for a convention to ban reproductive cloning, but allowing therapeutic cloning to be controlled at national level, would win the vote.
After a lengthy debate neither resolution was voted on and in November, the Sixth (Legal) committee agreed to re-convene to discuss a non-binding political declaration on cloning in February 2005.
On the 14-18 February 2005, negotiations resumed. However, there continued to be an impasse, with proposals revolving around countries being called upon to "prohibit all forms of cloning". This was totally unacceptable to the UK. On 18th February at the Sixth Committee, the UK, along with 34 other countries, voted against a declaration calling for a prohibition on all forms of cloning. Forty-five countries abstained. In total, only 71 of the 191 (37%) of UN members supported the non-binding declaration. The Sixth Committee adopted the declaration on cloning.
UK Stem Cell Bank
In May 2004, the UK government launched the world's first stem cell bank, which serves as a repository for all human stem cell lines produced under conditions of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). This facility allows UK to be at the vanguard of therapeutic cloning research.
UK cloning applications
The first license to generate human embryonic stem cells was granted by the HFEA to Professor Alison Murdoch at the Newcastle Centre for Life in August 2004. A second application to the HFEA to derive human embryonic stem cells was granted in February 2005 to Professor Ian Wilmut at the Roslin Institute. He will use stem cells derived by therapeutic cloning to study Motor Neuron Disease.