Delegates from around the world met at the UN Sept. 29 to Oct. 3. They were charged with the task of drafting an international ban on human cloning. But they didn’t get that far. In fact, they couldn’t even get started.

The members of the working group of the Sixth Committee, the committee of the United Nations General Assembly that handles international legal matters, have been struggling to define the parameters of a cloning ban.

When France and Germany proposed that the UN draft a cloning convention in 2001, they sought to create a ban that would only prohibit reproductive cloning. Many states, however, were dissatisfied with such a narrow negotiating mandate and so earlier this year, Costa Rica formally introduced a resolution calling for the working group to widen its scope and formulate a comprehensive ban on all forms of human cloning.

The chairman of the working group, Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo from Mexico, issued an informal summary report that fairly reflected the positions of those states advocating a total ban on cloning, versus those states seeking to address reproductive cloning only.

Robledo’s informal summary “noted with concern that, despite two years of discussing the topic in the General Assembly, limited progress had been made.” At the end of a full week of negotiations and meetings, the fact was that the only thing delegates could agree on is they could not come to an agreement at all.

Pro-life lobbyists lined the halls outside of the conference room where consultations were taking place and seized every opportunity to try to educate delegates regarding the ethical and scientific complexities surrounding the cloning issue.

Jeanne Head, a long-time pro-life lobbyist at the UN, remarked that this was perhaps the most important life issue that she had ever had to deal with at the UN.

As Head stated throughout the week, “If the UN were to pass only a partial ban on cloning (meaning a reproductive-cloning ban only), it would be the first convention ever to necessitate the killing of an innocent human life. Embryos would be created for the express purpose of harvesting their stem cells, thereby killing them.”

By the end of the week, both lobbyists and delegates were showing signs of fatigue. Lobbyists could be heard talking about the difficulties in surmounting the substantial language divide.

Sheetal Khemchandani, the UN representative assistant for National Right to Life, stated, “It’s hard enough for native English speakers to fully grasp all of the scientific details of cloning. I can’t imagine how hard it is for some of the other delegates. This is why we have to keep talking to all of them, to make sure that they are understanding it all.”

Delegates weighed in on the slow progress of the proceedings. Anacleto Lacanilao III of the Philippines quipped, “Sometimes I am flustered to realize that lawyers in the Sixth Committee are tasked with untangling the complex issue of human cloning. We cannot, however, leave this matter to scientists alone. The only worse thing to do is to leave it to lawyers.”

At press time, 53 nations had co-sponsored the Costa Rican resolution for a total ban on cloning, compared to 20 states that co-sponsored Belgium’s proposal for a ban on reproductive cloning only.

Negotiations were scheduled to continue at the end of October, when the Sixth Committee was to decide whether to put the matter to a vote or to continue the debate in meetings scheduled for February and September 2004.