YOU PROBABLY DIDN'T HEAR ABOUT IT, since it received such little media coverage, but last week, by a nearly 3-1 vote, the United Nations General Assembly urged the world to "prohibit all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life."
True, "The United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning," is not legally binding. Still, with 90 members on record as supporting the resolution and only 34 against (with the rest abstaining or absent) the lopsided vote sends a powerful message that the international community overwhelmingly opposes human cloning for any purpose.
Taken aback, supporters of therapeutic cloning are already on spin patrol. The Scientist, for example, asserted ludicrously that only "reproductive cloning" is banned under the resolution. The extremely slender reed cloning advocates have grasped to make this desperate claim was the use of the word "inasmuch" in the Declaration's declarative statement.
This assertion forces us to hit the dictionaries, where we find that "inasmuch" means "seeing that." The word is generally used to introduce a phrase which, according to one source, "explains why or how much something described in another part of the sentence is true." The primary synonyms for inasmuch are "because" or "since." Thus the clear meaning of the declarative sentence in the U.N. Declaration is to ban all forms of human cloning (reproductive and therapeutic) because (or since) they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.
However, the word "inasmuch" can occasionally be used to mean "to the degree that." pro-cloners grasped this less common usage as a weasely way out of the clear purpose of the declaration--much in the same way that Bill Clinton sought to declare different meanings for the word "is" during his legal difficulties. Thus, they asserted, the crucial sentence means that cloning should be banned to the degree that it violates human dignity. And, since pro-cloners do not believe that therapeutic cloning violates human dignity, they argue that only reproductive cloning is referenced in the resolution.
Baloney. The whole point of the declaration, as every delegate knew, was to ban "all forms" of human cloning. Moreover, if the sentence only castigated reproductive cloning, countries like United Kingdom, the People's Republic of China, and Belgium, which bitterly opposed the declaration, would instead have been all for it. Indeed, the United Kingdom has angrily condemned the declaration precisely because it knows that it applies to therapeutic cloning.
Adding heft to the argument that the declaration opposes all human cloning is the recognition in the document that cloning could lead to the exploitation of women. Here's the problem: Each act of cloning requires an egg. Obtaining eggs entails an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous procedure that can lead to infection, infertility, or even death.
Therapeutic cloning would use vastly more eggs than reproductive cloning, and hence, would have a much higher likelihood of leading to the exploitation of women. Indeed, as I have written here previously, if therapeutic cloning were ever to become widely available as a medical treatment, biotechnologists would literally require billions of eggs, creating an insatiable demand that could result in millions of women being exploited and commoditized as so many egg farms. This danger was undoubtedly a primary reason why so many poor countries such as Kenya, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and Equatorial Guinea, stood firm in support of a total ban on human cloning.
Put all of this together and we see that The United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning, even though non-binding, is a political document of crucial import. First, the successful four-year drive to put the United Nations on record as opposing human cloning succeeded thanks to the coming together of a broad and diverse international coalition that successfully bridged the political divide between left and right, secular and religious, East and West, developed societies and those which are developing. As this coalition gains strength and confidence, its influence to mould the world's views on biotechnology will grow exponentially.
The declaration should also positively impact our domestic debates. For example, pro-cloners frequently claim that their adversaries are merely a collection of Taliban-like religious fanatics seeking to impose their religious views on science. But the diverse and multicultural coalition which came together in the U.N. vote proves that assertion isn't true. And with the realization here at home that it isn't only the dreaded "pro-lifers" who oppose human cloning, the domestic coalition to ban the technology can only prosper.
Beyond the purely political, the U.N. declaration could also have an important impact on American constitutional jurisprudence. There is a quiet but growing movement within the bioethics, biotechnology, and legal establishments to have the Supreme Court declare a therapeutic cloning Roe v. Wade. With the Supreme Court increasingly applying international views in its decisions, the U.N. declaration will make it much harder to convince justices that an international consensus favoring therapeutic cloning should be read into the text of the Constitution.
The United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning is a breakthrough document with enormous potential to lead to tremendous human good. For it is only by banning all human cloning that we can, in the words of Leon Kass, "preserve society from the soft dehumanizations of well meaning but hubristic biotechnical recreationism--and do it without undermining biomedical science or rejecting its genuine contributions to human welfare."
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.