As ‘cloned baby’ flies into US, row erupts over verification

Former TV science reporter asked to lead DNA testing team gave enthusiastic support to Raelian sect
The Guardian (England), Dec. 31, 2002
Oliver Burkeman in New York and Jacqui Goddard in Miami

The sect that claims to have produced the world’s first human clone said the newborn girl was due to arrive in the United States with her American mother late last night – but the announcement was greeted by a chorus of scepticism from scientists. There were also growing doubts about the validity of tests that the group says will vindicate its claims.

Clonaid, a biotechnology company set up by the Raelians – who believe the human race began when ultra-intelligent aliens made clones of themselves – refused to reveal the identity or whereabouts of the baby, known only as Eve, who they said was born in an unnamed country on Boxing Day.

“The baby is going home, and once at home, it is possible for an independent expert to go there,” said Dr Brigitte Boisselier, the company’s chief executive. “Once a sample is taken, we will see … perhaps by the end of the week, or early next week, we should have all the details.”

The sect’s founder, Rael, a former French motoring journalist named Claude Vorilhon, said there were “thousands” more would-be mothers of clones on Clonaid’s waiting list. “It is good news indeed,” the 56-year-old told the Guardian. “But now that a human clone is born, this is just the first step. There will be more, much, much more.”

The company says it will offer the service at about $200,000 (£124,500) per clone, and that another cloned baby will be born next week. It says 2,000 people are waiting for the procedure.

But as cloning experts jostled yesterday to condemn the Raelians’ claims as almost certainly untrue, doubts were also voiced about the science journalist Dr Boisselier has invited to coordinate independent DNA tests aimed at establishing whether Eve really is a genetic replica of her mother. Dr Michael Guillen, who was the award-winning science editor of the US television network ABC until October, said he had accepted Clonaid’s invitation “on behalf of the world press, on two conditions: that the invitation be given with no strings attached, and that the tests be conducted by independent, world-class experts”. But his detractors say his career at ABC was marked by a credulous stance towards eccentric backwaters of science, including extra-sensory perception, astrology and telekinesis, or mind over matter.

In February last year he interviewed Rael for ABC’s news programme 20/20, enthusiastically describing the sect leader – who claims to have met Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed in space – as “the forerunner in this high-stakes competition”.

“Don’t be put off by his [Rael’s] unusual look … don’t dismiss this man,” Dr Guillen told viewers. “He’s determined and appears to be well-organised and well-funded, and it’s precisely because the Raelians are not constrained by conventional standards of science and society that they might just be the ones to pull it off, be the first to clone a human baby. Besides, it’s not really that hard.”

Dr Guillen said he was not being paid to coordinate the DNA tests on Eve, but speaking last Friday after participating in a Hollywood press conference organised by the Raelians, he failed to answer directly repeated questions about how he was selected.

“An issue such as this is naturally shrouded in secrecy,” he told the Guardian. “As a scientist and a journalist I am always sceptical about what I’m being told, and I don’t want to take anyone else’s word for it so I thought ‘Why not?’ I have been working on this story from the start and I’ve interviewed all the major players and developed a trust with them. I’ve talked to and know experts in the field.”

But Dr critic of Dr Guillen’s journalism, said his reporting on the paranormal “pandered to the superstitions of the public. He represents these things as open scientific questions, which they’re not. And now he’s trading on his reputation as a scientist. You can’t have it both ways”. Two DNA samples could be found to be identical, Dr Park said, but that would mean nothing unless the sources could be verified.

Scientists attempting to clone other primates have routinely failed to produce any pregnancies. But Dr Boisselier, at Clonaid, has claimed a 50% success rate, achieving five pregnancies with 10 embryo implants. Dr Guillen, who lives in Massachusetts, could not be reached for comment on the 20/20 interview yesterday. Dr Boisselier said the name of the expert who would be taking DNA samples would only be revealed later.

Rael, in an interview at a friend’s home in north Miami, said he did not know who or where Eve was. “I do not know the family, I do not know who they are, I do not know where they are,” he said. “I will not meet this baby. Maybe when she is 18, if she wanted to meet me, we could – but out of respect for her life I will not try. It is her choice. She is not a circus animal. Her privacy must be respected.”

Rael’s book, Yes To Human Cloning, elaborates his vision of “almost instant” clones, in which humans could achieve eternal life by downloading their personalities into ready-made adult copies of themselves. It is a message that in the last few days has begun to reach way beyond his 55,000 followers, thinly scattered across 84 countries. That publicity is crucial to Raelian doctrine, which holds that the aliens who created humanity will return only when everybody on earth knows about them.

Back in the realm of mainstream science, supporters of therapeutic cloning – which involves growing stem cells to try to treat human diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, without creating new babies – said the Raelians’ announcement added to the damaging public confusion between their work and reproductive cloning. “When people hear cloning, most don’t always separate the two, and cloning gets lumped into one category, making everybody anxious,” said Dr Susan Garfinkel, director of research grants at the US Stem Cell Research Foundation. “The scientific community as a whole does not endorse any kind of reproductive cloning.”

Neither technique has yet been outlawed in the US, not least because of disagreements in Congress over whether to ban both, or just reproductive cloning. President George Bush has all but cut off government funding for stem cell research.

A statement from the new Senate majority leader Bill Frist yesterday appeared to demonstrate that the Raelians’ announcement had hardened his resolve to ban all cloning.

“While its validity is unclear, it should serve as a chilling reminder that individuals are still trying to clone human beings,” Sen Frist said. “These actions offend our human sensibilities and undermine fundamental respect for the decency of human life. Today’s announcement reinforces the need for Congress to continue its efforts to enact a ban on human cloning.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday December 31, 2002.
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