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AAAS Joins Call Against Proposed United Nations Ban on Therapeutic Cloning
AAAS has joined a coalition of 125 health, research, educational and other groups in signing a letter that urges United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the U.N. General Assembly to reject a measure that would ban stem cell research involving therapeutic human cloning.
A proposed ban introduced by Costa Rica and strongly backed by the current U.S. administration failed to win U.N. approval two years ago, but debate on the measure and a Belgian counter-proposal is scheduled to begin on 21 October in New York.
"Global bans, such as this one, offer illusory protection for harm that doesn't exist," said the letter written by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. "Legitimate concerns can be addressed through responsible regulation. We urge the [General Assembly's] Sixth Committee not to recommend a ban or to condemn research that represents one of humanity's best hopes to understand and treat devastating illnesses and injuries."
Among the other groups signing the CAMR letter were the American Diabetes Association; the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation; the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research; the Association of American Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Research cloning-known more formally as somatic cell nuclear transferis a divisive issue. Advocates say that treatments and cures for illnesses that afflict millions of people might arise from the research using embryonic stem cells acquired through nuclear transfer techniques. Opponents say that any research that requires destruction of a human embryo is immoral.
While the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a comprehensive ban on cloning for reproductive or research purposes, the measure has stalled in the U.S. Senate, where some Republicans oppose reproductive cloning but favor research cloning. Their position is in line with policy advocated by most mainstream scientific and patient advocacy organizations.
The AAAS Board of Directors issued statement in February 2002 that endorsed "a legally enforceable ban on efforts to implant a human cloned embryo for the purpose of reproduction." The statement also endorsed the use of research cloning, under strict federal scrutiny, "in order to realize the enormous potential health benefits this technology offers.
"Such benefits are likely to be many years away," the statement acknowledged. "If they are to be realized at all, however, it will only be through carefully designed research subject to peer review."
The U.N. and its legal committee (the Sixth Committee) have been trying to reach agreement on a cloning convention for more than 2 years. In 2002, talks stalled after the General Assembly was deeply divided between the ban introduced by Costa Rica and strongly backed by the Bush administration and the Belgian alternative.
The Belgian alternative would ban reproductive cloning but leave decisions on therapeutic cloning up to individual nations; it is supported by more than 20 countries, many of which have strong science and technology sectors, including Britain, China, France, Germany and Japan. More than 60 countriesmany of them developing nations or strongly Roman Catholic nationshave signed the Costa Rica proposal.
The letter to the U.N. was featured at a news conference Wednesday in New York that was organized by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research; the Genetics Policy Institute, a group representing scientists who want to employ therapeutic cloning; and the South Korean mission to the U.N.
The press conference in the U.N.'s Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium featured statements from patients with diseases and injuries that might someday benefit from embryonic stem cell research. There was also a moment of silence for Christopher Reeve, the actor who became a powerful advocate for stem cell research after he was paralyzed in a fall from a horse. Reeve died 10 October.
"Christopher Reeve was confined to a wheelchair the last 9 years of his life," said Daniel Perry, president of CAMR, "but his spirit uplifted the hopes of tens of millions of people."
Research pioneer Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University prominently displayed the 12 March 2004 issue of Science which published work he authored with Shin Yong Moon and others on the first cloned embryonic stem cells.
Hwang showed a short clip removing genetic material from an egg to demonstrate how the nuclear transfer process worked in order to clone human cells. He stressed that work in his lab has been closely monitored at every step.
He also talked about a canine model for spinal cord injuries and showed clips of a control dog, with a spinal cord injury, unable to move its hind legs, and another dog, treated with stem cell therapy, that was able to move around its cage using its hind legs.
"The main focus is to find a cure for degenerative diseases," Hwang said. "Through our findings and advances, we have the prospect of overcoming neurodegenerative conditions."
Addressing the U.N. delegates, he added: "I can only hope you can share our vision."
Edward W. Lempinen and Carol Hoy
14 October 2004