Research on human embryos has become one of the biggest
ethical issues of our times. Some scientists, businessmen and
politicians claim that cloned embryos are needed to achieve medical
advances. Others vehemently deny this. The issue has even reached the
United Nations. In March, the General Assembly passed a non-binding ban
on all forms of human cloning, including research, or “therapeutic”,
cloning, by a vote of 84 to 34. More than half of
the 155 nations who voted supported the resolution, giving a moral victory
to opponents of therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research.
The resolution states that “member states are called upon to prohibit
all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human
dignity and the protection of human life”.
the forefront of the UN campaign against human cloning was the Central
American nation of Costa Rica. One of its top diplomats, José Joaquín Chaverri, explains to MercatorNet the significance of the historic decision.
MercatorNet: How did Costa Rica become the leader of the group pushing for a ban on human cloning?
Chaverri: Due to its historical experience as a peaceful nation, Costa Rica is
highly committed to the promotion of human dignity. In fact, the promotion of
human rights is the cornerstone of our foreign policy. In this sense, my
government could not remain silent on such a transcendental issue as human
On the other hand, my country did not
bring the question of human cloning to the United Nations. It was
originally raised there by Germany and France, who sought to legitimise
so-called “therapeutic cloning” by banning only reproductive cloning.
Thus we were forced to voice our objections to legitimising some forms
of cloning under the pretext of banning other forms and to argue that
the only valid option is to ban all forms of human cloning. The
President of Costa Rica, Dr Abel Pacheco, and the Foreign Minister,
Mr Roberto Tovar Faja, were personally committed to this position.
Rica’s leading role developed slowly from our strong commitment to ban
all forms of human cloning and from our willingness to serve as a focal
point of all the other governments that shared our point of view.
The obstacle to an agreement at the UN on cloning has always been
“therapeutic cloning”. What are the most convincing reasons for
opposing cloning of human embryos?
Before answering, let me note that there is no substantive difference
between the so-called “reproductive cloning” and “therapeutic cloning”.
There is only one cloning technique – somatic nuclear cell transfer –
by which you create a new embryo genetically identical to a
pre-existing human organism. The difference lies in what is done with
the resulting embryo after you have finished the cloning process. If
you implant him, or her, in a womb and wait until a baby is born, you
have “reproductive cloning”. If you destroy the human embryo to exploit
his stem cells in scientific experiments, you have “therapeutic
Moreover, from a scientific point of view, a
human embryo is unquestionably a human being at an early stage of its
development. The only difference between an embryo, a six-month-old
foetus, a baby, a child and adult is their respective stages of
development. Bearing these facts in mind, we believe that there are two
strong arguments to oppose all forms of human cloning.
human cloning violates human dignity by creating a new human being
through industrial processes, treating him as a mere object of
production and manipulation. So-called “therapeutic” human cloning is
even more worrisome because the new human being is destroyed to perform
scientific experiments. Second, human cloning would require the
exploitation of women. Cloning techniques require an enormous number of
eggs. If cloning were to be widely used, there would be a market for
poor women to sell their eggs, which is a painful and dangerous
procedure requiring heavy dosages of hormones. Are we willing to create
conditions that would push women to sell their bodies?
Many countries who voted against the declaration claim that therapeutic
cloning and embryonic stem cell are needed for cures for dread
diseases. How do you respond to that?
So far, human cloning has not proved effective in curing any diseases.
Its advocates have made wide-ranging promises but they have yet to show
any concrete evidence. On the other hand, there is a promising
alternative to human cloning that does not raise the ethical and
philosophical questions that cloning does: ie, research on adult stem
cells and on umbilical cord stem cells. In clinical tests, adult stem
cells have already proved effective in treating some medical
conditions. Costa Rica is fully committed to research in this area.
MercatorNet: Why it has been so difficult to persuade UN Members that embryos are human and deserve to be treated with the utmost respect?
Because of both politics and economics. On the political side, some
countries, like the People’s Republic of China, have made the
destruction of embryos a key element of their population politics.
Others, like the Scandinavian countries, see the destruction of embryos
as a right of women and fear that recognising the dignity of human
embryos in the context of cloning would put into question their
abortionist policies. On the economic side, countries like the Republic
of Korea and Singapore believe that a biotechnology industry based on
cloning would be a good source of income.
MercatorNet: Why do you think that human dignity should prevail over the demands of scientists?
Human dignity must always prevail. It is the basic condition for living
in society. Thus, while we support science and research, we believe
that it should always be carried within ethical limits. Scientific
curiosity must be weighed against the impact that research would have
upon the human participants.
March, several leading stem cell scientist went to the UN to lobby for
votes. Do the opinions of scientists carry much weight in diplomatic
Chaverri: In the negotiations
scientists were heard as advocates for both sides. In fact, several
important scientists argued for banning all forms of human cloning. The
views of all of them were respected and, indeed, they served to inform
the discussion. However, the question of banning human cloning is a
political decision that requires a consideration of not only scientific
evidence but also the philosophical, ethical and legal aspects.
the diplomatic community was keenly aware that those scientists were
not necessarily impartial or objective. Most of them were personally
involved in this line of research. Many of them had private motives
that went beyond scientific curiosity: some were competing for grants
and professorships, some were aspiring to Nobel Prizes, and others were
promoting their own private biotech companies.
Is there disagreement among UN member states about the meaning of
fundamental concepts like “human life” and “human dignity”? Is this a
Chaverri: Yes. It is
extremely troubling that there is a substantial disagreement among
member states on the value of human dignity and human life. This
divergence has become more acute as some developed countries embrace a
radical utilitarian philosophy that is prepared to sacrifice human
lives on the altar of convenience, privacy or private gain. On the
other hand, the recent adoption of the declaration on human cloning is
an encouraging sign that, in time, we will be able to develop a new
consensus on the value of human life.
Nearly everyone appears to oppose reproductive cloning. But if countries
do not enact bans on therapeutic cloning, is the door open to
Chaverri: This is true. As
the technique used for both for forms of cloning is the same, research
on “therapeutic” cloning would prepare the ground for reproductive
cloning. Moreover, cloned embryos are indistinguishable from normally
conceived embryos, so that they could be easily implanted in a womb,
either by accident or intentionally, in IVF clinics. It must be
stressed that the cloning technique is comparatively simple. It has
been used with animals for over 40 years and the leading South Korean
researchers on human cloning are veterinarians working in their
MercatorNet: Many Muslin
countries supported Costa Rica’s declaration that cloning of any kind
is inconsistent with human dignity. They seem to have a more humane
stand on this issue that many European countries. Why is this so?
It is difficult to say that one region or group supported our
initiative. Several Muslim countries supported the ban on all forms of
human cloning, but others objected strongly to our proposal. Meanwhile
in Europe some countries like Italy and Norway supported our efforts
while Belgium and the United Kingdom opposed us. In the end, we believe
that those nations that supported the ban on all forms of human cloning
have a deeper understanding of human dignity than those who did not.
The resolution that passed in March is not binding and a large number
of countries are going to ignore it. Do you think the effort to bring
the issue to a vote has been worthwhile?
Indeed, it would have been preferable for the declaration to be adopted
unanimously. It would have been an even stronger message. Regrettably,
as you noted before, there was a fundamental disagreement that could
not be resolved without a vote. Nevertheless, the declaration is
worthwhile. It sends a clear political message to all potential
researchers and governments that the international community condemns
human cloning and urges member states to adopt measures to ban this
kind of research.
MercatorNet: What is the next step? Can anything more be done in the UN to stop the spread of therapeutic cloning?
The next step is the implementation of the declaration at the domestic
level. All states must consider the declaration and adopt measures,
either legislative or administrative, to prevent any kind of human
cloning. In this sense, the work of the UN on cloning has concluded. It
has given a clear guide for member states to follow when considering
how to regulate scientific research in their territories. On the other
hand, the UN still must continue to promote human dignity in all areas
of scientific research, mainly through the work of UNESCO.