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Cloning: Human Rights, Human Dignity and International Governance

The announcement of the first non-human primate clones (genetically identical monkeys - macaques) called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua - cloned in China using the same process that was used for Dolly the Sheep in 1997 (the first mammal clone) has already resulted in discussion over what this may mean for humans because "non-human primates, macaques are obviously evolutionary much closer to humans than other animals typically used in research…They aren’t, strictly, the first primates to have been cloned. But they are the first to be produced using the single cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technique, which involves transferring cell nucleus DNA to a donated egg cell that is then prompted to develop into an embryo, and is the same process used for Dolly the sheep."

This article considers some aspects of the current international approach to governance in the field of bioethics - with a focus on human rights and human dignity. 

The birth of Dolly the sheep was a significant trigger for the inclusion of matters relating to human cloning in the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (UNESCO, 1997) and to the United Nations Declaration on Cloning (2005). 

The approach of the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (UDHG) is through an International Human Rights Law framework. The Declaration sought to obtain the broadest possible agreement to a set of international principles through a soft-law instrument on the basis that such an ever-evolving field requires initial international co-operation, rather than attempt to obtain a treaty requiring ratification or accession with potentially less buy-in.

The principle which underpins the Universal Declaration is human dignity. The focus is on the protection of the human genome from improper manipulations that may endanger identity or the physical integrity of future generations.

The UDHG includes twenty-five Articles in seven sections. The key principles articulated are as follows:

  • ‘The human genome…in a symbolic sense…is the heritage of humanity’ [Article 1]
  • Respect for human dignity [Article 2]
  • Non-discrimination with respect to genetic characteristics [Article 6]
  • Guarantees of individual freedom through the prior, free and informed consent of the individual and the confidentiality of genetic data [Article 5 and 7]
  • The principles governing research, namely freedom of research and the responsibility of scientists [Articles 13-16]
  • Solidarity and international co-operation [Article 17 -19]

Underscoring the importance of achieving international consensus and co-operation on the issues of the human genome, the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, a Resolution was adopted by consensus at the 53rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1998 which endorsed the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights.

In addition, there are further UNESCO Declarations on allied matters including the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data (2003) and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005).

In 1997, the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (the Oviedo Convention) opened for signature and in December 1999 it entered into force after its fifth ratification making it the first binding treaty devoted to biomedicine.

Matters at the heart of biomedicine and international governance have been considered by UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) and the United Nations Inter-Agency Committee on Bioethics (UNIACB).

The International Bioethics Committee (IBC) of UNESCO considered in depth the question ‘is the international community ready to reconsider its approach to human cloning?’ and concluding:

“that global dialogue would greatly benefit from efforts in the three following areas: 

Terminology: the IBC argues that the present frameworks and regulations are based on inaccurate and misleading terminologies that inadequately describe the technical procedures relevant to human cloning. The new scientific developments call for the redefinition and clarification of some widely used terms and for the dismissal of others.

 International governance: the IBC considers that the existing international legal frameworks and regulations are not sufficient to properly address the challenges posed by the most recent developments. They are non-binding and mutually inconsistent as a result of different views of Member States. A process should be initiated that could lead to the establishment of a more robust mechanism, such as an internationally effective and valuable convention or a moratorium, to prohibit reproductive cloning.

 Dissemination: the IBC stresses the importance of fostering public awareness by disseminating, discussing and debating on cloning issues at all levels. This would allow all countries, including the developing and least developed countries, to participate in the debate and put forward their concerns regarding the new technologies related to human cloning.”

Perhaps worth remembering in the coming days when such matters may be being discussed?


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