Banning science from meeting fiction

Is quite different from letting politics crassly dictate research

Published: Sunday 30 November 2003

-- ON NOVEMBER 6, 2003, the legal committee of the UN General Assembly decided that a vote to ban research on the reproductive cloning of human beings need not be taken up till the end of 2005. During deliberations, a little twist related to the research aspect of the issue generated a divided house. The US, along with Costa Rica and the Vatican, had lobbied hard for a comprehensive ban, presumably goaded by anti-abortion groups. But European countries, along with Brazil and South Africa, had lobbied for a partial one: they wished to exempt therapeutic cloning research.

In the eye of the storm lies stem cells. Their ability to replicate and generate specialised cells and tissue holds the promise to treat degenerative diseases like Parkinson's disease, diabetes, leukaemia and spinal chord injury. The most versatile stem cells are obtained from the embryo; this prompts anti-abortion sympathisers to oppose all forms of cloning research. On the other hand, the vast requirement of eggs for research evokes the fear that poor women in developing nations will be exploited for research.

The Interacademy Panel on International Issues (IAP), a global network of science academies, made a strong case for therapeutic cloning in its presentation. IAP strongly calls for a ban on reproductive cloning; cloning non-human mammals, they have found, always generates higher incidence of foetal disorder. It might be possible one day to reduce such incidence, but such cloning -- it is the stuff science fiction is made of -- leads straight to issues such as the limits of science, ethics and socio-legal implications. Back in 2001, China officially declared its support for therapeutic cloning and called for a legal framework to properly monitor research. Many European countries have been working on this line of research; understandably, they do not want their investment to go waste.

As the consensus failed, Iran, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Countries, moved a motion calling for a halt on the vote for two years. The motion won with a margin of one vote. Now, supporters said, there was time to understand the issues well. But it is sad that a consensus could not be achieved, since a partial ban excluding therapeutic cloning was unacceptable to the US. It would have been more prudent to ban just reproductive cloning -- so halting a brave new world -- and move ahead on therapeutic cloning, to check if it worked or not. But that did not happen.

Now both forms of research will carry on. But then, politics is not as rational as science.

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