BioWorld International Correspondent
MUNICH, Germany - The German government's efforts to enact a global convention banning both reproductive and therapeutic human cloning have met resistance and are unlikely to produce a comprehensive ban.
Germany and France have taken up initiatives within the United Nations system and at the European Union to bring a ban into effect. A comprehensive ban is supported by three of the four major parties in Germany's parliament, including the opposition Christian Democrats. Germany already has some of Europe's most restrictive regulations on medical procedures involving human embryos. (See BioWorld International, May 21, 2003; Feb. 26, 2003; and Jan. 22, 2003.)
In negotiations at the United Nations, differences have emerged about whether the legal language prohibiting cloning also would ban its scientific and medical uses. The point of contention is in the definition of "therapeutic cloning." Biotechnology researchers who have no intention of implanting cloned embryos might still fall afoul of the planned convention. Another line of inquiry is the use of stem cells generated from cloning procedures to potentially create replacement tissues that would not be regarded by patients' immune systems as foreign. While the technology for such procedures is still in the early stages, a prohibition similar to Germany's suggestion could declare such investigation illegal. Countries including China and Singapore, as well as EU members Sweden and the UK, are actively promoting research into therapeutic cloning as part of their basic research programs.
The U.N. committee examining the issue will decide by the end of October whether the panel of experts delegated to draft language has found an acceptable formulation or whether the decision will be put off indefinitely. In May, at a conference on the issue sponsored by the government, experts expressed skepticism that Germany's course would produce results.
"A binding international convention [banning cloning] will not find agreement," among a large number of states, Alexander McCall Smith, a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and member of UNESCO's International Bioethics Commission, said at the time.
Negotiations in the fall of 2002 came to a deadlock over the same issues, with widespread support for a ban on reproductive cloning and uncertainty about the extent and technical implications of a ban on therapeutic cloning. According to German media, the intervening year has brought some movement in the position of countries that are in favor of therapeutic cloning. A draft convention would require all states that ratified it to control therapeutic cloning through prohibition, a moratorium or regulation through national laws. Unofficially, German representatives also are prepared to support that position. Although the German government favors a full ban, it has recognized that international support for that position is not broad enough to a strong convention, said Kerstin Mueller, parliamentary secretary in the Foreign Ministry and a member of parliament for the Greens. She added that countries that do not share the German position would not ratify a convention that banned therapeutic cloning, defeating the purpose of the measure.
The government has faced criticism from the opposition and from within the ruling coalition that it has not lobbied strongly enough for a ban. On Oct. 14, opposition member of parliament Julia Kloecker said that the Foreign Ministry had not been forceful enough in presenting the German position that had drawn support across party lines.
"It would be better to have a clear convention without states like China, Singapore or Great Britain than to have a watered-down convention," said Maria Boehmer, another Christian Democrat member of parliament. On Thursday, Minister for Education and Research Edelgard Bulmahn will have to defend the cabinet's position in formal parliamentary questioning by the Christian Democrats.
The German government's position also is uncertain if the compromise requiring national regulation does not find consensus at the United Nations. However, the issue commands attention at the top policy levels, with a fallback position personally coordinated between Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his French counterpart, Dominique de Villepin.