Although the government of Costa Ricahelped put cloning concerns on the internationalpriority list – by proposing a global ban onhuman cloning at the United Nations – thesearch for consensus against the divisive sciencehas not been duplicated on a national level.While nations around the world scramble toeither side of the highly polemic debate, no laws orregulations – or even widespread discussion – existhere regarding the controversial technology, whichsupporters and opponents both call a matter of lifeand death.Because cloning and the developing science of stemcells has international political and ethical repercussions,Costa Rica had proposed to a U.N. ban on bothreproductive and therapeutic human cloning. But consensuscould not be reached among the 191 membernations, and the proposal was put on hold last month.LAST week, voters in Switzerland approved a referendumallowing stem cell research with humanembryos, and politicians in Norway began considering doing the same.Nearly all U.N. members support a banon the use of cloning to reproduce humans.Meanwhile, cloning of animals has stirredlittle controversy, internationally or locally,according to Pedro León, director of CostaRica’s National Center for HighTechnology (CENAT).What is contentious is the use ofembryonic stem cells for what is calledtherapeutic cloning. The Costa Rican U.N.proposal – which gained the support of theCatholic Church and 62 countries – soughtto ban both reproductive and therapeuticcloning.U.S. President George Bush announcedhis support for Costa Rica’s proposalbefore the United Nations in September.THE debate, like that of abortion,revolves around the question of when lifebegins.“The Costa Rican proposal is firmlygrounded in the rights of the embryo, andin the continuum of life. The embryo is ahuman life; we know life begins when theegg is fertilized,” said Bruno Stagno, CostaRican Ambassador to the United Nations.“But we are also concerned about thehuman life of the woman.”Cloning is done by taking a female eggcell, removing its nucleus and replacing itwith the nucleus of a regular cell – fromwhatever animal is intended to be cloned.The egg is then stimulated – sometimes byan electric shock – to make it think it is fertilizedand begin reproducing.To clone a human or animal, thatembryo would then be placed in a uterusfor development.IN therapeutic cloning, the thousandsof cells, reproduced over three or fourdays, are “scooped” out of the embryo,according to León. The embryonic stemcells are then put on tissue cultures andused for research.The idea is that the stem cells can beinjected into parts of the body where thereis damage – such as damaged nerve cellscausing paralysis – and will grow healthilyinto the type of tissue where it is placed,healing such damage.Proponents of the technology say it hasa wealth of potential in treating degenerativediseases such as Alzheimer’s andParkinson’s, as well as heart disease, diabetes,paralysis and possibly even for cultivatingentire organs.OPPONENTS of therapeutic cloningsay not only is the use of human embryosimmoral, it may cause health problems forthe women who provide eggs.“Women usually produce one egg permenstrual cycle, so in order to producemore, like 8-12, women are given hormonalcocktails,” Stagno explained. “Thesehormones cause reproductive problems,respiratory problems over time.Furthermore, in order to extract the eggs,surgery is needed, which has an inherentrisk.”“Eggs have a price, and eggs in thedeveloped world are more expensive thanthose in the developing world,” he continued.“We are worried that interestedresearchers will go to developing countriesand subject poorly informed women to thecocktails and treatments, in hospitals thatare not necessarily up to standard for suchprocedures.”THIS is one of the reasons Costa Ricahad been encouraging the United Nationsto pass an international ban on the technology,Stagno said. It first proposed a ban onhuman cloning in April 2003.Countering the Costa Rican proposalwas a Belgian proposal calling for a banonly on human cloning with reproductiveends. The debate dragged on for more thana year, and both proposals were ultimatelyrejected.Instead, the United Nations in Februarywill consider a declaration – much weakerthan a convention – calling on memberstates to prohibit the creation of human lifethrough cloning.COSTA Rica has no laws or regulationsmentioning either cloning or stemcell research. However, because the countryhas banned in vitro (artificial) fertilization,reproductive cloning is essentiallyillegal and embryonic stem cells cannot beproduced here, according to León.However, embryonic stem cells couldtheoretically be imported to Costa Rica andused in research, the CENAT directoradded.“It is a moot point here, even if wewanted to do therapeutic cloning, we don’thave the technology. We don’t have themicromanipulators; we don’t have thehuman skills,” he said.León called the country’s U.N. proposalon cloning “embarrassing.”He says the science must be supervisedand regulated by bio-ethics committees, toprevent the exploitation of women whowish to sell their eggs, but a full ban onresearch is inappropriate.“I think a lot of Costa Ricans haven’treally delved into what all this means. Insome ways I think there is a revival ofLuddites. In the 19th Century they wereagainst technology, particularly theadvancement of electricity. They thought itwould kill people. And it has, but protestingit seems funny to us. There is a revivalof concern about what science has done.The public is largely confused by so muchinformation, so many advancements,”León said.“The benefits that come from stem celltreatment will become so accepted in thecoming years, they will be widely availableand beneficial,” he said.León worked with the Ministry ofPublic Health to propose a bill to reformthe national Health Law to include a prohibitionof reproductive cloning. The bill,which will not be presented until at leastnext year, does not include a ban onembryonic stem cell research.“THE issue cuts across generations, itcuts across political systems; it is based onpersonal perception. If you are an 80-yearoldsenator and you think you can benefitfrom this technology, you are going to supportit,” León said.The scientist also said he believesmuch of the debate could become obsoleteas scientists find ways to use adult stemscells to produce the same results thatembryonic stem cells supposedly will.Adult stem cells are found in smallquantities throughout the body. Much largerquantities of stem cells are found inumbilical cord blood, which can be collectedright after birth.Doctors around the world have beguncollecting and cryogenically freezing thisblood for its current and future use.IN Costa Rica, the new umbilical cordblood bank Provida just celebrated freezingthe blood of 30 babies since it openedearlier this year. This blood, rich in stemcells, is currently being used to treat variouscancers and types of anemia, and maysoon be used to treat diabetes, according tothe private firm’s Dr. Eduardo Glenn.“The potential in the next 10 years isamazing,” he said.The price for freezing the blood cryogenicallyto negative 196 degrees Celsiusis $1,000 plus $100 a year to keep itfrozen.Parents who opt to use the technologyconsider it buying insurance against futureillnesses in the child or family.“One of the most important thingsabout this technology is the blood is takenfrom the umbilical cord. It is a culture oflife. You don’t need to kill babies to get thestem cells,” said father Manríque Odio,who had the umbilical cord blood frozenwhen his son Agustín was born threeweeks ago.