Report of possible baby cloning ignites debate

CTV (Canada), Dec. 19, 2002
http://www.ctv.ca/

News that an international fringe religion based in Quebec is about to make human cloning a reality has ignited the human cloning debate across the country.

The Raelian movement has said that a baby girl, a genetic duplicate of her mother, is expected to be born in the next 14 days.

The group, which believes that space aliens created everything on Earth in a lab 25,000 years ago, founded a company called Clonaid in 1997. The company’s website says its “main goal is to give life to the first human clone.”

Brigitte Boisselier, a biochemist and director of Clonaid, said in a phone interview the company successfully implanted 10 cloned embryos. She said the company perfected its technique after practising on 300 embryos.

Clonaid said five pregnancies ended in miscarriage but that five are doing well. The first baby will be born via caesarean section at an undisclosed facility, Clonaid said.

The company’s claim is that the girl is the genetic duplicate, or clone, of the mother, an American woman in her 30s. If the group succeeds, they could soon be breaking the law.

The Canadian government hopes to pass Bill C-13 — also known as the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill — sometime in the New Year. The legislation will ban human cloning but will allow other reproductive technologies, with regulations.

“I think it’s taken far too long for the government to act on this,” said Suzanne Scorsone, who served on Canada’s Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies. The commission filed its report in 1993.

However, Rudolf Jaenisch, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fears that banning cloning outright could harm beneficial research, such as therapeutic cloning, which is used to generate tissues and spare organs.

“I am afraid the public in this country and other countries will be so influenced by these actions that it could enact legislation that could impede beneficial research,” Jaenisch said.

Many health agencies around the world are calling for a global ban on human cloning. Earlier this year, such legislation was proposed but has yet to be approved.

“There’s well over two dozen countries who already have legislation banning human reproductive cloning,” said Dr. Patricia Baird of the University of British Columbia. “We have needed it in this country and I hope we get it soon.”

More pregnancies planned

Clonaid told CTV’s Avis Favaro that it has four more viable pregnancies due in February and that it plans to implant another 20 cloned embryos next month.

Favaro said the company has given the rights to film the development in the next two weeks to an American film production company and that it will be allowed to do the blood testing — the DNA fingerprinting — to see if this is a clone.

Scientists say it’s an unlikely achievement but it’s not impossible.

“It has been possible after many attempts to clone other mammalian species,” said Prof. Lawrence Smith of the University of Montreal. “There’s no reason to think that human beings would be any different than other animals.”

To make a clone, scientists take DNA from an adult cell and inject it into a hollowed-out egg from a young woman donor. The egg is then subjected to a jolt of electricity that begins the formation of an embryo.

At least one doctor says Clonaid’s claims are all the more plausible because, with the Raelians, they have a large number of young women followers who are willing egg donors.

“It is certainly possible that they have accomplished what they say they have done,” said Prof. Lee Silver, a bioethicist at Princeton University. “The only way to prove it will be to get DNA from the baby and match it with the donor. And if they do match, the baby is a clone of that donor.”

Other experts say that even if cloning were possible, the babies would likely be born with severe defects. Cloning research has produced many deformed and dead animals.

“These people who have claimed to clone humans, first of all they are highly irresponsible,” said Jaenisch. “If they really do it, they will produce abnormal cloned humans.”

Baird, who led the Royal Commission on Reproductive Technologies, told Canada AM that she agrees that the group is being highly irresponsible and cruel.

“The great majority of cloned embryos that are inserted never come to birth. There are a lot of miscarriages, a lot of stillbirths. Then in the few percent that do come to birth, there are abnormalities.

“Even if they seem normal at the beginning, they develop heart problems, developmental delays, all kinds of problems have occurred in the animals.

“So with that kind of background in the animal work, to go ahead and do this in humans is really, I think, cruel and completely inappropriate,” Baird says.

The Raelians are reported to be in a race with controversial Italian doctor Severino Antinori, who has said he would deliver the first cloned human in January 2003.

The Raelians

The Raelians, who claim 55,000 members worldwide, believe human life was created by DNA brought to Earth by an alien race. Their founder and leader is Rael, a former French journalist known as Claude Vorilhon. He was also a French race car driver.

“They believe that we were all created by extraterrestrials in test tubes,” said cult expert Mike Kropveld. “They believe, in effect, that we were cloned by our founders.”

Among those they have contacted for possible cloning is the legendary vampire Dracula. Spokesperson Boisselier said he’s alive and living in Berlin. She said she has learned to laugh at skeptics.

“People are calling me Frankenstein,” she said. “I tell them, imagine Frankenstein is calling Dracula. That should make people laugh a lot.”

The group’s headquarters, called UFO Land, are located in Valcourt, Que., about 200 kilometres east of Montreal.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday December 20, 2002.
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