In a setback for Washington, the U.N. narrowly blocked moves by the U.S. and other countries Thursday to approve a global ban on human cloning because the proposal also would have constrained stem cell research.
The General Assembly's legal committee, which includes representatives of most U.N. members, voted 80 to 79 to delay for two years consideration of a treaty to ban human cloning. Fifteen members abstained, and some missed the vote.
Even if the resolution had been adopted, the ban would not have been legally binding, leaving each country to decide whether to enforce the worldwide convention. But U.S. Deputy Ambassador James B. Cunningham said that it would have been "an important political signal and statement of principle that should help set an international standard."
Although all of the 191 U.N. members agreed that human cloning should be prohibited, they were sharply divided on whether to also halt related medical research. The United States backed a Costa Rican proposal to constrain stem cell research, which scientists say shows great promise in curing diabetes, Parkinson's disease, leukemia and spinal cord injury.
In an unusually passionate debate that involved religious, ethical and human rights issues, the U.S. argued that extracting stem cells involved the destruction of an early-stage embryo -- and thus human life.
Others said that a cluster of 150 cells in a petri dish did not represent a potential human being, and that the research offered overwhelming benefits for living people.
Belgium, supported by about 35 countries, including America's usual ally, Britain, argued that the U.N.'s most urgent priority should be to stop human cloning. It offered a narrower ban that left it to individual governments to regulate "therapeutic cloning" involved in research.
To offer a graceful way out for countries caught in the middle, Iran put forward a motion on behalf of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference to defer the drafting of the treaty until 2005. The motion was narrowly approved. That would allow more time to study the issue and build a consensus, the motion said.
The vote was so contentious that diplomats from several nations, such as Canada, who had said they would support the U.S.-Costa Rican resolution, abstained. A representative of Benin, one of the resolution's cosponsors, didn't even show up.
"If we had a convention only on reproductive cloning, we would have had a consensus," Belgian Ambassador Jean de Ruyt said after the vote. "But if you start from the perspective of whether an embryo is a human being, you will never reach agreement."
The U.S. had claimed a slim majority of nearly 100 supporters for its position. But some of the nations did not want to force a decision that many others opposed, and others acknowledged that they chose to avoid taking sides.
Waiting two years allows time for a scientific breakthrough that would eliminate the need to use embryonic stem cells for research, many delegates said.
Stem cells are considered particularly useful because they are "blank slate" cells that can develop into any cell or tissue in the body. They can potentially be coaxed to become healthy replacements for a person's damaged liver, spinal cord tissue or cancerous cells.
"We understand the concerns of our Islamic friends, some of whom simply wanted more time to consider the implications of this complex issue," said Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador. "And it's unfortunate that the other countries have been able to hide behind those concerns to deflect what would have been a significant majority in favor of our proposition."
Many nations, including Canada and France, already have national legislation in place forbidding cloning work for the purpose of creating a human being. The United States does not: The House has passed a bill, but the Senate has not yet acted on it.
President Bush in 2001 extolled the promise of stem cell research but restricted federal funding to only support work with existing lines of stem cells. At the time, more than 60 were said to exist, but only nine have proved viable, said Paul Berg, a Stanford University professor emeritus of biochemistry and a Nobel laureate.
For many of the 100 nations that the U.S. said registered support for a total ban, the question came down to this: When does life actually begin?
"If the United Nations were to ban reproductive cloning without banning cloning for research, this would, for the first time, involve this body in legitimizing something extraordinary: the creation of human beings for the express purpose of destroying them," Archbishop Celestino Migliore, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said in the days of debate before the vote.
Representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference received a fatwa, or religious edict, from a prominent Egyptian jurist that approved cloning for medical research while denouncing the replication of human beings.
"Human cloning is wrong and opposes God's creeds in creating man, according to what the Koran has said. But cloning parts/organs of the body in order to replace sick or missing parts -- that kind of treatment is allowed," said the legal opinion issued in January by government-appointed Grand Mufti Mohammed Ahmed Tayeb.