Cult determined to clone humans

US company to fight Congress attempt at ban on human cloning
Special report: the ethics of genetics

The Guardian/July 19, 2001
By Michael Ellison

New York -- With the president of the United States, his health secretary, the food and drug administration, anti-abortionists and feminists joined against her, Brigitte Boisselier needs a little faith.

A member of the Raelians, a cult which holds that life on earth was genetically engineered by visitors travelling in UFOs, the 44-year-old scientist is about to have her belief that she is on the verge of improving mankind's lot tested in Congress.

The lower house is expected to consider a bill which would impose a 10-year jail term and a $1m fine on anyone who practises human cloning. Ms Boisselier, who has doctorates in chemistry from universities in Dijon and Houston, is scientific director of Clonaid and says that her team will produce the first human clone soon. "Humanity will benefit," she said yesterday.

"This is good for infertile couples who have serious problems and for people who want to have a baby and don't want to mix their genes, people who prefer to clone themselves. Even if you prohibit it, there will always be a place where it can be done."

Ms Boisselier will not say when she expects her team of four doctors and a technician to achieve their goal, nor will she disclose the locations of Clonaid's two laboratories, other than that one is in the US and the other abroad.

Congress has been told that President Bush and the health secretary, Tommy Thompson, oppose human cloning. The FDA says that human cloning must have its approval, which it will not give: a decision Ms Boisselier plans to challenge in the courts.

Anti-abortionists say that creating clones is immoral. Feminists say that the procedure requires women to take possibly damaging drugs to induce egg production. Mice, goats, cows and pigs have been cloned since Dolly the sheep was created near Edinburgh in 1997.

Human cloning would work in the same way, producing a genetic twin by putting an individual's DNA into an unfertilised egg which has had its centre removed. The egg is stimulated with chemicals or electricity in a laboratory until it is big enough to be put in a womb.

Clonaid's credibility, in scientific terms at least, is not doubted, partly because it claims to have 55 women ready to act as surrogate mothers: essential because of the high failure rate. Opponents say that animal cloning has worked in only 3-5% of cases, and reject the idea of designer babies on ethical grounds. Human reproductive cloning is banned in at least 19 countries, including Britain.

"Do you realise why people from Harvard are marrying each other?" Ms Boisselier said. "They want babies who will go to Harvard. Even if it's unconscious, we're choosing a child by choosing a partner. "We don't want to have a baby that's an idiot. We're using scientists today to achieve what people have been trying to achieve for centuries. I want the children of the future to be happy."

She says that thousands of people have contacted her for reproduction by cloning, and these are said to include a small number of British gay men. Then there are those who have been in touch for other reasons. "I've received a lot of death threats, not every day but every week. I'm not bothered by those aspects." Nor is she persuaded by a recent study published in Science magazine that found cloning to be unreliable and potentially dangerous. "Any new thing is difficult to predict," she said.

"That didn't prevent other scientific advances. They were done with a lot of care and that's what we're trying to do with this research. Their study was on mice and we have more knowledge for humans. That's very poor science."

The Raelian cult was formed in 1974, a year after its leader, Claude Vorilhon - now known as Rael - received the message from an alien while he was climbing volcanic rocks in France.

A 54-year-old former racing driver and sports journalist, who lives near Montreal, he claims 55,000 converts in 84 countries to his creed that cloning is the first step towards attaining eternal life. Clonaid was set up by Rael four years ago and its work is in part funded by $500,000 from an anonymous couple who want the world's first cloned child, a twin of their dead 10-month-old son.

Rael, who asks $100,000 for public speeches, proposes to charge $200,000 for each clone, but Ms Boisselier says no one need pay anything until Clonaid has produced its first child.

"This couple will have a baby and will see a return on their investment," she said. "Do you realise that other scientists say, 'Because of your beliefs, cloning will be stopped?'

"I'm doing what I think is right. With my strange beliefs and my weirdness, I consider myself to be an educator. I'm trying to tell the world that having a baby that's a twin of an individual is not that big a deal. "It was the same argument 20 years ago about in-vitro fertilisation."

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