A secretive, well-funded religious group from Quebec has announced plans to clone a human being, just as the first humans were cloned by a race of aliens long ago.
At least that's the belief of the Raelians, a sect founded by a French race-car driver and former sportswriter who now calls himself Rael.
He was told by an alien visitor in 1973 that an extraterrestrial race called the Elohim created humans thousands of years ago, and have maintained contact with us ever since through messengers that include Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed.
"We believe we've been created by beings from space, with very advanced science," said Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, science director for Clonaid, a company set up by the Raelians to sell cloning services to homosexual couples and parents whose children have died, among others.
"The facilities will be in the United States, but I don't want to say where because I don't want a bomb in my office tomorrow," she said.
Human cloning is illegal in much of Western Europe, but not in the United States. There is a ban, however, on using federal funding for research on human embryos, which would encompass human cloning. Clonaid is being initially funded by a wealthy couple whose 10-month-old daughter died in an accident, Boisselier said.
If Not Them, Someone
Experts doubt the Raelians have the expertise to create a human clone - an exact genetic copy of another person. But it's well within the realm of possibility that someone will be able to soon.
"With enough resources, you can clone humans," said Dr. George Siedel, a cloning expert at Colorado State University. "It's very likely that if you did it enough times, you could make it work."
Successful cloning has already taken place in sheep, cows and mice, he noted, and it wouldn't take much effort to tweak the process and apply it to humans. Unlike the knowledge needed to, say, build a nuclear weapon, all of the information necessary for cloning is available to the public, published in scientific journals.
'A Dead Baby or a Deformed One'
But it's not a question whether scientists can clone people - it's a question of whether they should. The ethical cost is dauntingly high, experts say.
If the Raelians or any other group were to achieve success, it would be at a high cost of miscarriages and deformities, and danger to the surrogate mothers and the clones in their wombs.
"Most clone pregnancies end up in [spontaneous] abortion," Siedel said. "And in every species where we've tried cloning, we've seen high rates of birth defects: oversized animals, malformed joints, hypoxia [lack of oxygen] and hypoglycemia [low blood sugar]."
Even a best-case scenario would result in the death of 98 percent of the clones, Siedel estimated: a 2 percent success rate.
"You stand a very good chance of making a dead baby or a deformed one," said bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania. That's assuming the Raelians even have the necessary resources and expertise. "The Raelians are nuts, and I don't think they can do it," Caplan opined.
Boisselier said the group has developed innovations that will bring the success rate up to about 30 percent, roughly in line with the success rate for in vitro fertilization clinics - three out of every 10 attempts would result in a living, breathing clone.
She added that if her team detects fetal deformities, they will abort the pregnancy. "I don't think there will be many birth defects," she said.
A Religious Mission
The Raelians claim to have 50 members who are willing to be surrogate mothers to the clones.
The sect has been known to make grandiose promises in the past, according to Mike Kropveld of the Quebec-based group Info-cult, like its vow to create an embassy in Israel to communicate with extraterrestrials.
The Raelians are certainly media-savvy: at press conferences announcing the cloning plans, Rael himself was flanked by 25 attractive young women that he described as his "public-relations executives."
"Considering the movement's been around a quarter century, it hasn't really had a major impact besides the media attention it's attracted," Kropveld said. "They love publicity and attention; whether they'll ever do anything is another question."