Attack of the clones

The Raelian Movement believes that aliens first created human beings in Jerusalem. Now this group, who have set up a worldwide human cloning service, is desperate to establish an `embassy’ where it all began
Ha’aretz (Israel), Aug. 31, 2002
http://www.haaretzdaily.com/

Two years ago, a prosperous Israeli businessman was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The disease is atrophying his body so that, day by day, he is losing the ability to perform simple, routine functions.

Concluding that a life dependent on others is not worth living, he stopped taking his medication. Fifty-eight years old and childless, he decided, when the end was near, that he wants to leave something of himself behind. He rapidly became obsessed with the idea that this something should be a cloned child – one who is genetically identical to himself. The businessman won’t live to raise the child, but he sees his premature death as an unfortunate “mishap” and believes that his genes deserve a second chance.

If this had happened five years ago, the businessman would have had to make do with the usual means wealthy people use to perpetuate their memory – like underwriting a new children’s hospital ward or a cultural center bearing his name. Today, on the other hand, with the genome being dubbed a culture hero and called the “book of life,” his wish is to perpetuate … his genes. And given the current enthusiasm for the wonders of biotechnology, with many other people sharing his metaphysical faith in the power of genetics, the opportunity to realize his dream is becoming more realistic.

A like-minded group is the Raelian Movement, a science-oriented religious movement, which espouses cloning as an article of faith. About 18 months ago, the businessman and the Raelians found each other (through the Internet, of course). The consequences of that meeting are bound to lead to a renewed argument over whether or not human beings should ever be cloned and, if so, for what purpose.

The desire to be cloned is not restricted to bio-megalomaniacs; there are also bereaved parents with this desire. They acknowledge that cloning cannot give them exactly the same child over again, and that he will be raised in a different time and in a different environment by people who have been irrevocably changed by their loss. Yet, they yearn to clone a person who will resemble, albeit painfully, the precious one who was lost to them, in the vain hope of bringing him back to life.

E.T.s and Elohim

The businessman in question has invested in Clonaid, a company established by the Raelians. The investment: about $1 million, they say. While it’s unlikely that the Raelians will succeed, the fact is that they have about 50 true believers – women prepared to donate their eggs and to serve as surrogate mothers for a cloned fetus.

Cloning thus far has proved to be very inefficient, in that the failures far outnumber the successes: Only two or three of every 100 animal cloning trials result in a live birth. According to Prof. Don Wolf of the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center, a leading scientist in the field, “when you look at the critical prerequisites for cloning – money, eggs, a surrogate womb, determination and patience – the Raelian group has them all.” For these reasons, says Wolf, they have to be taken seriously.

That’s not always easily done, especially when listening to the preaching of Rael, the movement’s leader – a French-born former race-car enthusiast who favors all-white attire reminiscent of Flash Gordon’s. Over the telephone, his voice has a velvet quality as he describes, with a slight accent, how in 1973 he met an alien who landed his flying saucer on a volcano in southern France: “He was about 1.20 meters tall. His eyes were a bit slanted, a little like Asiatics.” The alien (who spoke “very articulately, though in a slightly nasal voice”) told Rael that life on earth was created by aliens with an advanced knowledge of genetic engineering.

These aliens are “Elohim” (that’s right!), a word whose meaning in ancient Hebrew, according to Rael, was “a god who came from the sky.” The extraterrestrials took Rael to their planet, he says, where graceful female robots did whatever he wished and gave him “the most unforgettable bath in my life.” His experiences on the alien planet persuaded the pleasure-loving Rael that his task was to bring the Elohim’s message back to the world.

Susan Palmer, a Canadian sociologist who is studying the Raelians, believes that they number between 20,000 and 30,000 people in 80 different countries, including Israel. The Raelians are not without resources: Prof. Jeffrey Hadden, a University of Virginia sociologist who studies religious movements, estimates that the Raelians have raised $7 million to establish an “embassy” in Jerusalem, where they believe the Elohim began creating human beings. In the movement’s Tel Aviv office, there is a fat file containing copies of their requests to, and repeated refusals from, the Israeli authorities in the matter of the embassy.

The Israeli branch of the Raelian movement is headed by Leon Mellul, whose official title is “chief counselor.” He says there are 360 Raelians in Israel. They believe in enjoying life; they meditate and they meet once a month at a Tel Aviv hotel. Raelians in Israel are actually not all so interested in cloning, he says, because they argue that while today’s technology permits conservation of the genetic material, memories cannot be conserved.

Shattered taboo

On the other hand, Dr. Brigitte Boissellier, a top scientist at Clonaid, makes a very professional impression, although talking with her is very strange. She says she has a laboratory in “one of the countries where cloning is not forbidden,” but refuses to name the country. “You understand, I don’t want to see new legislation being passed there next month,” she says, laughing.

Boissellier has two Ph.D.s, one in physical chemistry from the University of Dijon, the other from the University of Houston (Texas). Before joining the Raelian movement, she was associate head of research at the French chemical company Air Liquide. At Clonaid, she says, she set up a six-member research team of scientists and doctors: two biologists, two biochemists and two physicians – one an expert in the field of in vitro fertilization, the other an obstetrician.

Given all the confusion surrounding the subject, it’s a matter of concern that, in many countries, comprehensive legislation to prohibit cloning has not yet taken shape. Attorney Gali Ben-Or of the Ministry of Justice, for instance, says that in the United States, federal research funds may not be used for work related to human cloning, but private companies may still do as they like with their money. And, indeed, last November, the American biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology reported that it had cloned a human embryo. The success was partial, however (the embryo lived only to the stage where it consisted of six cells), and the company stressed that, in any case, it had no intention of allowing the embryo to develop into a baby, and it was to be used for the production of stem cells – but it shattered another taboo.

In Israel, the Knesset passed a so-called “Cloning Law” in 1998 that has temporarily prohibited the use of cloning as a substitute for existing fertility treatments. The prohibition expires in 2004. Meanwhile, the committee that, under the law, was supposed to monitor developments worldwide and submit yearly reports with recommendations has not yet submitted even one report.

The wording of the law implies that there is no intrinsic problem with cloning, merely a “technical” problem because the method isn’t fail-safe. One supporter of the method is Prof. Michel Ravel, Israel Prize laureate in medicine and chairman of the Bio-Ethics Advisory Committee of the National Academy of Sciences. Cloning, he says, if it’s ever made safe, will not harm human dignity. On the contrary, he thinks: If the system can help infertile couples, it could mesh nicely with the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

Boissellier says that the Clonaid waiting list has thousands of names on it. About half are infertile couples, but there are also many people who want to clone their dead relatives (“some are from Israel; people who lost family members in a war,” she reveals) and also some gay couples.

“To clone a child you’ve lost,” she explains matter-of-factly, “we must preserve his cells very quickly. Ideally, within less than 24 hours after death. People send us specially packaged cells by mail, or we go ourselves and collect the cells.”

But who, or what, do the parents expect to receive? “They know it’s won’t be the same person. We discuss this with them,” says Boissellier, launching into one of those speeches in which each element by itself sounds logical, but the sum total is completely distorted: “When you’re a parent and you have a child, a very specific child with its own DNA, and you aren’t able to raise this child to the point where he can enjoy life and leave his mark on the world, you have a choice either to let him go forever, back to dust – or to preserve the DNA, this special DNA, and bring a `late-born’ twin to this child into the world, and try to raise the child, see him blossom and turn into someone. That’s what these people think.”

Unraveling the secret of life

“The genetic revolution and the project to interpret the human genome have changed our thinking, and are perceived as a step toward unraveling the secret of life itself,” says Vardit Ravitsky, who is writing her doctoral thesis at Bar-Ilan University on ethics and genetics.

“The idea of `self-perpetuation’ via `perpetuation of my DNA’ has tremendous symbolic and emotional weight. The notion that, if another human being is born who carries my DNA, then in a certain sense `I’ continue to exist and my death from my standpoint is `less final,’ is really the latest idea in a long human tradition of battling the finality of our mortality by `leaving our mark': to leave behind offspring whom we’ve educated, a book we’ve written, a building we’ve built, a painting we’ve painted, some `message.’ In this sense, to have my DNA remain after me can be conceived of as one more way to leave behind something of myself. The problem is the ease with which – apparently – people will begin to think, not in terms of `perpetuating myself,’ but in terms of `assuring my own immortality.’ That’s a deterministic conception in the straightforward sense that `my clone will actually be another me’ who will live on after me.

“Opponents of cloning argue that cloning encourages our cultural predisposition not to accept death as part of life. In this view, modern medicine has taught us that we can and should battle against death with the help of technology, which can prolong our lives astonishingly, and that cloning is another step in the same direction: that death is a `mishap’ that we will soon be able to `overcome.'”

Liz Catalan and others like her feel that cloning technology will fill a certain void in their lives. Catalan sells cruise packages in Miami. At 36, a few years after marrying her husband, Marco, she discovered that her ovaries were no longer producing eggs. Doctors told her that the only way she could become pregnant would be by using donated eggs, but she isn’t interested in carrying another woman’s child, and prefers the idea of giving birth to her own twin sister.

In an interview with NBC-TV a few weeks ago, Catalan related that she had sent her medical documents to Dr. Panayiotis Zavos, who does in vitro fertilization in Kentucky and who has announced plans to clone a human infant, with a request to be placed on his waiting list.

“How many people who say no – either to cloning as fertility, or to cloning to produce stem cells for research – would change their

minds if they were in my position?” Catalan wonders. “People are still going to do it,” she says. “They’ll just go to some other country.”

Fuzzy family ties

“I see cloning as the prescription for the fundamental loneliness of each person,” says Randy Wicker who runs the Internet site for the Human Cloning Foundation, which he established after the announcement was made of the birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, in 1997. “Most people feel very alone and isolated. There’s a total lack of communication between generations. With cloning, we’ll have families that are much closer.” And what about the problems that are liable to crop up in family relations? queries Ravitsky. “The inter-generational boundaries will become fuzzy when it’s not clear who’s the child of whom, and what the family relationships created as a result of cloning are going to be: A `father’ will, in fact, be his child’s `identical twin'; a `mother’ will give birth to her own `identical twin'; `grandparents’ will be the genetic parents of their `grandchildren.’ There will be tremendous confusion about family relationships.”

In any event, says Wicker, he spends many hours every day answering questions from people who think that cloning is already available and who want to know how to go about arranging it. He explains that cloning is not yet an option for people, and encourages them to try other possibilities at this point – like adoption. Still, he urges them to join in the battle to change the way people feel about human cloning.

“So many things can go wrong in cloning,” says Dr. Amir Arav of the Volcani Institute. “Some cloned animals are born larger than normal, others with health flaws, cardiac or respiratory; there are flaws in the DNA, and existing tests clearly cannot reveal them all.”

Is Boissellier worried that the defects seen in so many cloned animals may appear in a cloned human infant? “We will follow the development of the fetus very closely,” she responds. “A sick child will not be born.”

But most scientists are skeptical about their real ability to carry out that promise. Most cloned fetuses never reach maturity, but end their lives during cell reproduction. Are potential surrogate mothers aware that they might have to undergo an abortion if their infants are discovered to have defects? Yes, says Boissellier, and hands the telephone to her daughter, Marina Cocolios, 23, an art student, who was chosen to serve as the first surrogate.

“I think it’s so beautiful, I see it as a gift to humanity,” says Cocolios. “I always wanted a child, but I never had the time.” n

How cloning works

In cloning, a cell is taken from a mature animal and the cell nucleus – where almost all the genetic material is located – is injected into an empty egg, the nucleus of which has been removed. To make the empty egg and the mature nucleus unite to develop a fetus, a process usually initiated by the sperm, a small electrical charge is used, which “vitalizes” the fertilized egg. The Edinburgh researchers who cloned Dolly demonstrated something that had hitherto been considered impossible: that the DNA in the mature cell, which had already fulfilled its specific purpose and matured, could be “tricked” into dividing and behaving as if it were a newly fertilized egg. At the next stage, which isn’t particularly complicated, the fetus is implanted in the womb of a surrogate.

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