The compromise Friday means that the U.N. General Assembly will abandon efforts to seek a worldwide treaty. Members could not decide between draft proposals either to ban all human cloning, or to ban reproductive cloning and allow some for stem cell and other research.
Instead, the sides will step back and meet again in February to negotiate a declaration that would provide guidance to countries trying to determine their stance on cloning and embryonic stem cell research.
"We're just happy that we got this agreement, and we hope we'll make progress," said Belgian diplomat Marc Pecsteen, whose country led efforts for a partial ban. "We haven't finished the business. We'll see after February what the situation is."
The decision was a blow to President Bush, who had gone before the U.N. General Assembly in September urging the world to back a total ban that had been presented by Costa Rica.
But U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States was still pleased.
"It's our long-standing position that all human cloning is wrong, and we are proud of our efforts to prevent human cloning," he said. "So the fact that there isn't any action by the U.N. to endorse cloning is a moderate success."
Advocates of human cloning for research took the opposite approach, saying they were happy that there wasn't going to be a U.N. move toward a treaty that would reject human cloning for research.
"We were faced with a potential treaty that was going to condemn the research," said Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, which supports cloning for research. "A treaty could have a legal effect, it could become the law of many countries."
In the end, Costa Rica, the United States and their allies said their proposal to begin drafting a treaty banning all cloning would have passed. There were 62 co-sponsors of the Costa Rican draft and about 22 for the proposal seeking a partial ban, offered by Belgium.
But supporters of the total ban said they would not have been able to overcome a procedural delay threatened by Belgium to again postpone talks for another year. Instead of waiting that long, they agreed to the idea of a declaration to get something out sooner.
Without a vote, the General Assembly's legal committee accepted a proposed text offered by Italy as the basis for February's discussion.
There are still deep divisions over the Italian text, which calls 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. They would rather have a document that uses the language "human being."
That 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.
Costa Rica's Ambassador Bruno Bruno Stagno Ugarte suggested the United States and others wouldn't be willing to bend from the words "human life." He underscored that there was nothing in the Italian document that would prevent his country from reviving calls for an international treaty at a later date.
"This is the best compromise you are going to find," Stagno Ugarte said. "It's an important word, I can see that. but it's either that or it's embryo."
Indeed, both sides said they wanted more time for consensus to build.
Opponents of cloning said ultimately, that's why the Italian document may work in favor of a convention.
"This in effect sends a very strong message: This is the direction in which the U.N. wants to go," said Jeanne E. Head, vice president for international affairs for the Nations Right to Life.