The Raelians have championed some strange causes in the movement's 25-year history, including aliens and human clones, but now they are going to bat for a body part -the clitoris.
The cult's leader, Rael, whose real name is Claude Vorilhon, has become outraged by the custom of female genital cutting, the primarily African practice in which part of a girl's genitalia is sliced away.
Now the Raelian Movement has resolved to build a hospital in the West African country of Burkina Faso, where women could come to have their clitorises "reconstructed."
"Rael thought this is a crime against humanity," says Lara Terstenjak, a spokeswoman for Clitoraid, a nonprofit set up by the Raelians to sponsor genital surgeries.
Female circumcision is surprisingly prevalent throughout the world, particularly in Africa, where in some communities it is performed on 98 percent of the female population, despite legal prohibition.
Coming as it does from the group that claimed to have produced the first human clone, the Raelians' boast that they're sponsoring clitoris reconstruction seems open to question. Yet the group has reputable doctors on its side.
The Raelians have recruited Marci Bowers, who runs a thriving sex-change clinic in Trinidad, Colorado, and has been called the "rock star" of transgender surgery. Bowers is a post-op transsexual herself.
Bowers flew to Paris last April (on her own dime) to train with Pierre Foldes, an Ob-Gyn in Paris who reportedly invented the technique of clitoris reconstruction after many years of treating women in Africa.
Foldes performs about 200 of these surgeries each year. According to Terstenjak, Foldes declined to get involved directly with Clitoraid, but he agreed to perform the surgery on women sponsored by the Raelians, and to instruct other doctors in his technique.
Terstenjak says Clitoraid has sponsored six women so far, including several from Burkina Faso who were flown to Paris to have the surgery done. Foldes did not return a phone call from Wired.com, but Bowers confirms that the doctor worked on the six women helped by the cult.
When Bowers first started talking with the Raelians, her "working theory" was that they were a little bit nuts, she says. But after a long, leisurely dinner in Paris with 10 cultured and international Raelians, she declared herself charmed.
"They weren't anything different. It's just that they bought into this philosophy involving extraterrestrial beings on earth," she says. "I don't have to buy into the whole concept to do the work."
During Bowers' training with Foldes, they operated on 15 women in one day. Bowers remembers one of the young women they saw on the operating table. She was about 19 years old, and she and her twin sister had both had the genital-cutting procedure when they were little girls living in Mauritania. Her twin sister had died, the woman said, because the cut was too deep, and they couldn't stop the bleeding. Bowers recalls that the woman had the most severe form of genital cutting, called infibulation, in which the clitoris and inner lips of the vulva are completely removed, and the outer lips are sewn partially shut to leave only a small hole.
Surgeries to "reverse" this kind of genital cutting have become fairly common in Europe as African immigrants become more westernized. However, Foldes is currently the only doctor who attempts to go the extra step, not just dividing the sewn-together skin, but also constructing a new clitoris.
"It's not terribly invasive," Bowers says. She explains that the surgeon first removes the scar tissue, and then looks for what the cutting procedure left behind. The clitoris, Bowers says, "is almost like a snail. Most of it is curled up behind the pubic bone, but there's one tip pointed out, and that's the clitoris. So you're first exposing the remaining stump of the clitoris, and then bringing it forward with some suturing."
Foldes performs the surgeries for free and in addition to his regular hospital work, Bowers says, and she expects to do the same. She plans to start seeing patients at her Colorado offices, and will fly to Burkina Faso for a month of surgeries as soon as the Raelians get the hospital built. She doesn't mind donating her time to the cause, and has also donated some money to help with the hospital: "This is building karma," she says.
While construction of what the Raelians call "the pleasure hospital" has been delayed, Terstenjak insists the building will rise within the next year. The group says it has bought a piece of land in a suburb of Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso's second-largest city.
"Here's a beautiful piece of information," Terstenjak says. "There actually have been women coming out, known (genital-cutting) victims, and they want to help. They've put themselves forward to the construction team, saying, we've never done anything like this, but we'll carry bricks, we'll dig holes, whatever needs to be done."
Terstenjak claims that more than 100 women are on a waiting list for the procedure in Burkina Faso, and that there's no requirement that these women join the Raelian Movement. However, one of the women who Clitoraid sponsored for the procedure is referred to as a "guide," a term used in the Raelian hierarchy.
There have been allegations that the Raelian Movement uses its doctrine of free love to attract recruits (such as this 2005 article from Wired.com), and sensual massage is reportedly a key part of their seminars. "Some people say they were first attracted to the movement because they thought they would get laid," says Susan Palmer, a professor of religious studies at Montreal's Dawson College who wrote a book on the Raelians. "But more than recruiting, it's a way for people within the movement to bond," she says.
So could Clitoraid's effort to bring new clitorises to African women be a recruiting technique? Palmer laughs at the suggestion. "That would be an extremely expensive and round-about way to do it," she says. "They could just give them some food. Like the Christian missionaries -they just feed people, and they flock to their churches."
But that would be an old-school way of proselytizing. The Raelian Movement, as it prepares a better Earth for the extraterrestrial's return (expected before 2035), is nothing if not forward-thinking.
"What amazes me," Palmer says with a tone of respect, "is that they are so inventive."