Just two days before the United Nations postponed a decision to call for a ban on therapeutic human cloning, a committee of the European Parliament (EP) last month moved to enact just such a ban in the European Union (EU).
On November 4, the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy (ENVI) of the European Parliament accepted an amendment prohibiting the use of cloned human cells for medical transplants. The ban would be part of a new directive (2002/0128) setting safety and quality standards for donation, testing and storage of all types of human tissues and cells, and possibly the manufacturing and distribution of industrial products based on them as well.
Whether the ban will become law is uncertain, however, because the European Commission (EC) and the Council of Ministers, in which all member states have veto right, already rejected the idea last April. Safety regulations, they said, cannot be used to impose moral rules on member states—especially when the states disagree. Because while countries like Germany and Italy forbid any form of human cloning, others, such as Sweden and the UK, allow researchers to try to clone patients’ cells into embryos in order to use their omnipotent cells as transplants.
But Parliament, in a thinly veiled attempt to by-pass this objection, said cloning is too `risky’ rather than unethical. Citing evidence of `defects at the molecular and cellular level’ in Dolly and her successors, the amendment introduced by ENVI would ban the use of cloned human embryos and human-animal hybrids as sources for transplant material. Ironically, the ban would not apply to non-clinical research, although of course it is unclear if anyone would pay for research if ultimately treatments would be illegal.
The squabbling EU bodies have until a plenary vote on December 15—or at the very latest early next spring—to find common ground. If they don’t, EU procedures dictate that all safety rules, not just the cloning ban, are off the table, possibly for many years.
Meanwhile, the United Nations voted 80 to 79 to postpone drafting a treaty to ban human cloning, since member states after two years of discussions could not agree whether to condone cloning for therapeutic uses. Forty-five countries, including the U.S., had signed on to a complete ban; fourteen others, led by Belgium, would leave the choice to individual countries.
To avert a showdown, on November 6 a bloc of Islamic countries led by Iran offered a two-year deferment as a way out. The delay permits more research, backers said, perhaps making it easier to reach consensus in 2005.