By Irwin Arieff
United Nations - A UN tradition of seeking broad international consensus in the drafting of treaties has set back a Bush administration campaign for a global ban on medical research on stem cells.
Washington, with backing from the United States anti-abortion movement, tried to push a resolution through a UN committee on Thursday for the drafting of a treaty that would ban both the cloning of human beings and so-called "therapeutic" cloning, in which human cells are cloned for medical research.
Cloning research relies on embryo cells, or stem cells, because they can grow into all cells and tissues in the body.
While there is virtually universal support at the UN for a treaty banning human cloning, the international community is deeply divided over therapeutic cloning.
Scientists see it as a promising avenue in the battle against disease while anti-abortion activists and many Catholics see it as the taking of human lives.
Nigerian envoy Felix Awanbor said his country hoped for a ban on stem cell studies for fear African women were "most likely to be at risk as easy targets to source the billions of embryos required for scientific experimentation on this issue".
While the US claimed support for its approach from as many as a hundred of the 191 UN member-nations, an ad hoc group of governments managed to block it in the General Assembly's legal committee on a razor-thin vote of 80 to 79 with 15 abstentions.
The vote was on a motion, put forward by Iran on behalf of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference, to defer consideration of the drafting of a treaty on cloning until 2005.
Those voting in favour of the delay said they did so for a number of reasons, but most stressed the need for consensus on such divisive issues.
One group of countries opposed to the US stand, led by Belgium and including Brazil, Japan, South Africa and several other European states, favoured a narrower ban exempting therapeutic cloning.
That group, many of which have active pharmaceutical and medical research communities, argued that the top UN priority should be to quickly ban cloning humans, leaving it to individual governments to decide whether, and if so, how, to regulate therapeutic cloning.
They noted that the US Congress was itself so deeply divided over stem cell research that it had so far failed to adopt legislation regulating it.
But a partial ban "has never been a principle that we've been prepared to accept", US Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham told reporters after the vote.
Over the next two years, "we will use this time to continue to enlarge the body of international opinion that supports a total ban on human cloning," he added.