Abducting The Cloning Debate

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BASTIENNE SCHMIDT/POLARIS

Rael and women who have agreed to serve as surrogate mothers in his sect's human-cloning project pose at the Raelians' UFO theme park in Quebec

We think of science as a clean and logical place where, with the right skills and instruments, you can see the world in a grain of sand. So what happens when you cross science with a circus full of clowns and tricks and gaudy lights, where everything is for sale and nothing is for real?

The science circus comes to town when a group like the Raelians claims to be cloning children, announcing one arrival just in time to fill the holiday news vacuum. The news came as a shock but not much of a surprise. It was only a matter of time before one of the teams racing to produce the first human clone either succeeded or just decided to claim it had. Chemist Brigitte Boisselier, president of the biotech company Clonaid, is a member of the Order of Angels of the Raelian religious cult, whose prophet Rael says 4-ft.-tall green space aliens visited him 30 years ago in a French volcano and revealed that all of us are descended from the clones they planted here 25,000 years ago. With her announcement of a miracle baby named Eve and the group's subsequent claim of a second cloned birth, the most important debate in morals and medicine is delivered into such hands to mangle.

Activists who argue passionately over the ethics of cloning, and research on embryos in general, found themselves united in their disgust. When he saw the Raelians on TV, says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, he thought, "Preposterous announcement by kooks." But he also felt despair, as did many scientists who believe that the only way the most morally intricate research can proceed is by keeping it away from charlatans. "I knew they would have a very damaging impact on the cloning debate. First, they would just plain scare people," Caplan notes. "The Raelians are not the picture you want in people's minds when they write their Congressman about cloning."

And write they will, as Congress returns to wrestle with where to erect the guardrails around new reproductive technologies. There is a near consensus for outlawing what the Raelians claim to be doing — cloning one person's cells in order to grow a genetic replica — on the grounds that the risks are too great and the moral costs too high. But so far, no national ban has been passed because a fierce debate still surrounds other forms of research that borrow some of the same techniques. Supporters of "therapeutic cloning," in which embryos are cloned to harvest their stem cells but never grown into a baby, argue that these primitive cells, which can turn into any kind of cell in the body, may hold the secret to cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other diseases. "Of course, all society — from scientists to politicians — is against human reproductive cloning," asserts Dr. Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology, a biotech firm in Worcester, Mass., that has led the way in cloning human embryos for stem-cell research. "No one wants to see 100 copies of Madonna or Michael Jordan. But it would be tragic if this outrage spills over into legitimate medical research that could cure millions of patients."

It is harder for the biotech companies to argue for compromise in a world where the worst-case scenario is getting all the attention. The Raelians are to the labs of America what Enron was to the boardrooms, a rebuke to the premise that science can be self-policing. "If you allow embryo cloning in research labs because of its supposed great potential," argues Representative Dave Weldon, Republican from Florida who did research in molecular genetics in graduate school, "you're going to have all these labs with all these embryos, and it will be that much easier for people like the Raelians to try to do reproductive cloning." Last session Congress passed a bill banning all cloning, but it died in the Senate, where lawmakers still hoped to write rules that will allow some embryonic research to proceed. Thanks to the Baby Eve announcement, supporters of a total ban feel that their chances are now much improved: "I think that gave it more of a sense of a clear and present danger," says Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who plans to reintroduce his bill quickly. His legislation would make it illegal even to import products derived from cloning done overseas — which some say raises the possibility that if scientists in Britain find a cure for Alzheimer's, American patients will be barred from getting it.

Indeed, some scientists argue that a total cloning ban would impel top U.S. scientists to move overseas, where there is more public support. Britain banned reproductive cloning but is allowing therapeutic research to move forward. "Blanket bans on technology are almost always a mistake," argues Tim Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. "You don't ban fertilizer because you can use it to make bombs. Don't ban cloning because it may be abused. What we should do is regulate the activities that may be abused, like human reproductive cloning."

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