The debate over the morals of cloning humans has degenerated into farce with the claim by a religious sect that it has a cloned a baby ready to, as it were, go. While religious leaders, scientists and ethicists have argued, the Raelians say they have duplicated a human as part of their quest for "perpetual orgasms through cloning".
Jest or genuine? The truth of the matter eludes all. But it is clear the Raelians have turned cloning into a situation comedy.
The man behind such a peripatetic quest had something of a wandering career before finding his true calling as a prophet of free love, cloning and the return of aliens to Earth. Nearly three decades ago, Claude Vorilhon, a sportswriter and race car driver, stood at the top of a volcano and began a movement that now lies behind what is either a stunning scientific breakthrough or a staggering hoax.
Vorilhon, a Frenchman who calls himself Rael, claims to have held six meetings with space travellers at the volcano, after which he founded a religion based on the belief that aliens created humankind through cloning 25,000 years ago. Now, a research company with close ties to his sect, called the Raelians, says it has followed suit: cloning a baby girl called Eve from cells provided by a 31-year-old woman. Clonaid, the company, offered no proof of its success when it announced on Friday what it claims is the first human cloning. But it said independent tests backing its claims would be finished in about a week.
"You could still go back to your office and treat me as a fraud," Brigitte Boisselier, the company's director and a "Raelian bishop", told journalists when she announced the clone was about to land. "You have one week to do that."
In his book, The Message Given to Me by Extra-Terrestrials, Vorilhon writes that he was hiking in central France in 1973 when approached by an alien just over a metre high whose skin was "white with a slightly greenish tinge, a bit like someone with liver trouble". The traveller invited him back to his UFO, parked on a nearby volcano.
For the next few days Vorilhon was told the true story of the human race. Humans were created 25,000 years ago in a laboratory by advanced beings from another planet who had mastered genetics and cell biology. In between classes, Vorilhon says, he received the devoted attentions of six "voluptuous and bewitching" female robots.
The alien renamed Vorilhon as Rael and sent him back into the world to spread the word. He now lives just outside Montreal where he has built a museum called Centre UFOland, devoted to Raelian history. In his office Rael has a white double bed covered with a tiger-print throw and large, topless photographs of his young girlfriend Sophie. Uninhibited sex is an important feature of Raelianism, as is the hope of achieving everlasting life and perpetual orgasms through cloning.
Rael claims to have 55,000 followers around the world, mostly in Canada and French-speaking Europe. Advances in cloning during the mid-'90s gave the Raelian cult a new motivation. Science, claimed Rael, had finally caught up with his long-ridiculed predictions. It was time to prepare for the return of the cloning aliens. Rael called on his female supporters to offer themselves as hostesses for the aliens and for him, their prophet on Earth. He wanted only good-looking women for his Order of Angels. Their tasks would range from consensual sexual gratification to offering their wombs and eggs for cloning experiments.
The sheer number of women Rael had at his disposal made him hard to ignore in the Wild West world of human cloning. One of the hardest tasks faced by scientists wanting to clone humans is finding women ready to offer their eggs and bodies for the dangerous experiments which might lead to successful cloning. The Raelians have solved this.
Rael set up a company called Clonaid, which was little more than a post-office box in the Bahamas but won enormous global attention.
Boisselier volunteered to be Rael's head scientist. She worked for a chemical gas company in France and has two doctorates in chemistry but no formal qualification in biotechnology.
She found an American couple from West Virginia ready to give her $1 million and laboratory space to clone their 10-month-old son who had died during heart surgery. The couple later pulled out, calling Boisselier a "press hog".
Boisselier, who is divorced, has since been working secretly in the Bahamas. Her 23-year-old daughter, Marina Cocolios, is one of Rael's Angels. She has said she would be ready to undergo abortions if defects were found in cloned embryos.
Given the secrecy in which the Raelians operate, it is hard to verify most of what they claim. But they say that 3000 people have signed up for Clonaid's service.