The strange genesis of a human cloning claim
U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 13, 2003 issue
BY NELL BOYCE
The inspiration for the world’s first human cloning company, Clonaid, came to former French journalist Claude Vorilhon in a flash. It was 1997, just after the birth of Dolly the cloned sheep, and Vorilhon was riding in his car, idly listening to the radio. Suddenly, he felt a stab of annoyance: A newscaster reported that Pope John Paul II had denounced any effort to clone humans. Vorilhon, known as the prophet Rael to followers of his UFO-based religion, loves science and considers the Roman Catholic Church his “worst enemy.” He instantly thought of a way to needle the pope and score a public-relations coup.
Rael went on to buy an off-the-shelf Bahamas company and announce that his group planed to clone a human. The gambit paid off, Rael wrote in his recent book, Yes to Human Cloning: “For a minimal investment of $3,000 in U.S. funds, it got us http://www.religionnewsblog.com/archives/00001728.html worth more than $15 million . . . I am still laughing. Even if the project had stopped there, it would have been a total success.”
But it didn’t stop there. According to Rael and Clonaid’s head, chemist Brigitte Boisselier, many people called in search of real cloning services. The company set up a serious cloning program backed by investors, she says. And late last month Clonaid claimed that it had produced the world’s first human clone, an infant nicknamed Eve, and had more on the way.
If the birth of Clonaid brought a burst of attention, the birth of Eve yielded a mother lode of publicity for Rael’s movement, which has 20,000 to 50,000 members. Rael and Boisselier have become regulars on TV talk shows, and Clonaid has even caught the attention of Rael’s nemesis, the pope, whose spokesman called the announcement of baby Eve “an expression of a brutal mentality, devoid of any ethical and human consideration.” And in spite of the group’s off-the-wall beliefs, some scientists found it hard to dismiss its claims out of hand.
Others did just that, stressing the lack of any evidence. “We all doubt it’s been done,” says Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “The smell of deception, fraud, and Barnum & Bailey circusism is everywhere in the air.”
The offer by freelance journalist Michael Guillen to verify the claim with the help of an unnamed “independent expert” did not help. What’s needed is simple: a comparison of DNA taken from the infant and from the 31-year-old American woman who is said to have given birth to her own clone, hoping to have a genetically related baby despite her husband’s infertility. An exact match would prove the claim true. But late last week Boisselier said the parents might not allow the testing. She blamed a Florida lawsuit, which raised the possibility that the court might take custody of the child if it was found to be a clone.
If the testing does take place, the samples from mother and child must be watched every step of the way to prevent tampering. And some have questioned Guillen’s ability to serve as a disinterested watchdog. Guillen, who was not available for comment last week, has reported favorably in the past about the cloning effort’s prospects and has sought funding for a documentary on it.
Fertility expert Jacques Cohen of Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey, for one, doesn’t expect to be persuaded by any DNA results. But he adds: “This thing is probably bogus, but you never know.” Indeed. With their practice of “sensual meditations,” their fervent desire to build an embassy for space aliens, and their Canadian museum called UFOland, the Raelians are easy to ridicule. Yet in the past, Clonaid has made claims that seemed outrageous but later turned out to have a basis in reality.
In March 2001, for example, Boisselier appeared before Congress and read a letter from an anonymous man she called “Dada,” who had given her company nearly half a million dollars to clone his dead son. The story seemed surreal, but a lawyer named Mark Hunt later admitted that he had given the company money to set up a lab in an old high school in West Virginia. Hunt and his wife hoped to clone their infant son, who had died from a heart defect.
Clonaid’s association with the Raelian movement also gives it two real advantages. Cloning of animals like Dolly has shown that getting a hollowed-out egg to form a cloned embryo after being injected with DNA from an adult usually takes many attempts, which means many wasted eggs. Many of Rael’s female followers would offer up both their eggs for the cloning process and their wombs for surrogate motherhood–Boisselier’s own daughter has publicly volunteered.
Raelian doctrine might even help Clonaid recruit people with the necessary technical savvy. Rael disdains the supernatural in favor of science. Just days after September 11, for example, Rael sent out a press release saying that “the only solution for terrorism is for science to replace religion.” But unlike atheism, Raelianism provides the psychological reassurance of a creation story, which was revealed to Rael during a walk in the woods in 1973. Taken aboard a silver flying saucer, Rael reports, he met aliens who told him that extraterrestrial scientists created all life on earth 25,000 years ago.
For some scientists, a movement that elevates their craft to a godlike level holds a special allure. Mehran Sam, a biologist who worked at Harvard University, has told U. S. News that “there are many scientists among the Raelians.” They include a geneticist working on an allergen-free peanut at an agricultural school and Damien Marsic, a graduate student in biotechnology at the University of Alabama-Huntsville who studies bacteria that live in extreme environments.
“When I first heard of it, my first reaction was, ‘How can people believe such strange things?’ ” Marsic remembers. But he now believes that science will allow humans to become more and more like their alien creators, the Elohim. Cloning, which the Elohim use to achieve immortality, is part of that metamorphosis, he says. “We are on the path that the Elohim were on a long time ago.”
But for all of their love of science, Raelians also embrace pseudoscience like crop circles, and they don’t believe in evolution, the backbone of modern biology. No Raelians are known to have the expertise in reproductive medicine needed for cloning. And some of their past claims now seem empty. In 2001, for example, Boisselier told reporters that she was on the verge of cloning a human, even though the West Virginia lab apparently had made no progress in cloning Hunt’s son. Hunt broke with Clonaid and called Boisselier a “press hog.” Then there’s the timing of their announcements: The latest one bests Severino Antinori, the Italian fertility specialist and would-be cloner who has said he will announce a cloned baby this month.
With that baby news on the way and the Raelian controversy continuing to rage, cloning will no doubt continue to make headlines–and perhaps legislation. At the moment, only a few states have laws against human cloning. A federal ban on all human cloning stalled in Congress last year because of concerns that it would restrict research, and a similar debate has stymied a push in the United Nations for a world ban.
Many scientists, in fact, draw a sharp line between cloning to create babies and cloning to make early human embryos, which could yield new ways to study diseases like Alzheimer’s or perfectly matched replacement tissues for transplants. But as more and more human cloning claims hit the news in coming weeks, lawmakers might feel pressure to ban cloning in any form. It will prove ironic indeed if the Raelians’ love of the spotlight ends up harming science, the bedrock of their religious faith.
With James M. Pethokoukis