UNITED NATIONS – U.N. (search) diplomats abandoned contentious efforts to draft a treaty that would outlaw human cloning (search) and will likely settle for a weaker declaration that won't seek a comprehensive ban, officials said.
The last-minute agreement on Thursday appeared to be a major blow to President Bush (search), who had called for a total ban on cloning when he spoke before the U.N. General Assembly in August.
While there is near universal support among the United Nations' 191 members to ban reproductive cloning — the cloning of babies — countries have wrestled over whether to allow cloning for stem cell and other research.
For more than a year, the General Assembly's legal committee has been wrestling with rival cloning resolutions. One, offered by Costa Rica, calls for the drafting of a treaty banning all forms of cloning. The other, from Belgium, would allow some cloning for science.
In the end, the two sides were too divided to get enough support for a treaty that would achieve worldwide ratification, said Marc Pecsteen, a Belgian diplomat in the thick of the talks.
Instead, they agreed to settle on a less powerful, nonbinding declaration that would include language ambiguous enough to please both sides.
"There is such a division in the international community that any treaty would not make it, so the idea of the declaration is to find some general language that we could all live with," Pecsteen said.
The sides were expected to convene in the legal committee on Friday — the last day the committee meets until next year — and agree to use a draft declaration, proposed by Italy, as the basis for discussions that would begin in February.
There will still likely be more passionate debate over the declaration.
Pecsteen stressed that Belgium and advocates of cloning for research had problems with it, but the sides saw new room for compromise.
"It's not that there's consensus on the Italian text," he said. "There's consensus on using it as the basis" for further talks.
In its original form, the Italian document called on nations to "prohibit any attempt at the creation of human life through cloning and any research intended to achieve that aim."
The Belgians object to using "human life" because they fear it could be interpreted to ban all forms of human cloning.
That language gets to the heart of the dispute over cloning: Many argue that an embryo used in cloning is a human life, but not necessarily a human being.
But either way, the declaration would only encourage nations to pass laws conforming to its position. It would not lead to a treaty, as the Costa Rican and Belgian proposals would have done.
Many researchers believe stem cells harvested from embryos could be used to regenerate nerve tissue or cure diseases, including Alzheimer's. But extracting stem cells from an embryo kills the embryo, which opponents say is tantamount to taking a life.
The Costa Rican proposal for a total ban had 62 backers, while the Belgian proposal for a partial ban had 22 supporters, mostly European countries.
In his August speech before the General Assembly, Bush backed the Costa Rican treaty proposal and urged "all governments to affirm a basic ethical principle: No human life should ever be produced or destroyed for the benefit of another."
On Thursday, a U.S. official struck a different tone.
"We are hoping for an outcome that will satisfy everyone, that the principle of human dignity is preserved but the wording satisfies all parties," the official said on condition of anonymity.
A key factor in Thursday's agreement was the attitude of Islamic countries, who had been largely undecided. Both sides had spent recent days wooing them, but those countries remain deeply divided, said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.