Experts skeptical of cloning claims
Saturday, December 28, 2002
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Ushering in either a brave new world or a spectacular hoax, a company linked to a religious sect that believes in space aliens announced Friday that it has produced the world's first cloned baby.
A healthy 7-pound girl, nicknamed Eve by scientists, was delivered by Caesarean section Thursday somewhere outside the United States, said Brigitte Boisselier, chief executive of Clonaid. Boisselier said the girl is an exact genetic copy of the American woman who gave birth to her.
At a news conference, Boisselier offered no scientific proof, provided no photographs and did not produce the mother or child.
She said proof -- in the form of DNA testing by independent experts -- will be available in perhaps eight or nine days.
"You can still go back to your office and treat me as a fraud," she told reporters. "You have one week to do that."
Cloning experts were skeptical or reserved judgment on the announcement, which is certain to touch off fierce ethical, religious and scientific debate.
In Washington, the Food and Drug Administration said the agency will investigate whether the experiments violated U.S. law.
The United States has no specific law against human cloning. But the FDA contends that its regulations forbid human cloning without prior agency permission. And the agency has no intention of giving the OK.
"The very attempt to clone a human being is evil," said Stanley M. Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics at Duke University.
Boisselier would not say where Clonaid has been carrying out its experiments and did not identify any of the scientists involved.
She described the mother as a 31-year-old with an infertile husband. The couple has decided not to face the media now, she said.
Clonaid was founded in the Bahamas in 1997 by Claude Vorilhon, a former French journalist and leader of a sect called the Raelians. Vorilhon, who calls himself Rael, claims a space alien visiting him in 1973 revealed that extraterrestrials had created all life on Earth through genetic engineering.
Boisselier, who claims two chemistry degrees and previously was marketing director for a chemical company in France, identifies herself as a Raelian "bishop" and said Clonaid retains philosophical but not economic links to the Raelians. Rael is "my spiritual leader," Boisselier said.
"I do believe we've been created by scientists," she said. "And I'm grateful to them for my life."
She said neither the infertile couple nor the four other couples are Raelians. The other couples are a pair of lesbians from Northern Europe; two couples from North America and Asia who seek to clone dead children from cells taken before their deaths; and a second Asian couple, she said.
Twenty more women are scheduled to be implanted with cloned embryos, she said. So far, 10 women have been implanted; five had miscarriages in the first three weeks, and the other five led to "Eve" and the four current pregnancies.
No couple has paid for the cloning effort, but some of the first five couples invested in Clonaid and became business partners, she said. She said she does not know how much Clonaid will charge once it begins to offer the service commercially.
To gain convincing proof that "Eve" is a clone, Boisselier said she accepted an offer by former ABC News science editor Michael Guillen. Guillen, now a free-lance journalist who said he has no connection to Clonaid, said he has chosen "world-class, independent experts" whom he did not identify to draw DNA samples from the mother and the newborn and test them for a match.
Guillen, who said he is not taking any money for his efforts, said he hopes to release the results and make the experts available to reporters within a week to 10 days.
To do the cloning that led to "Eve," scientists removed the nucleus from an egg of the woman and merged the altered egg with a skin cell from her, Boisselier said. The DNA from the mother's skin cell took over direction of the egg.
"The baby is very healthy," Boisselier said. "The parents are happy. I hope that you remember them when you talk about this baby -- not like a monster, like some results of something that is disgusting."
Boisselier said she had received thousands of requests for cloning from couples over the past three years. In addition, "I have been receiving many death threats," she said.
The notion of human cloning is controversial, both because of an apparent risk to a baby -- cloned animals have shown a host of abnormalities -- and because of other ethical considerations.
Boisselier contends that defects seen in cloned animals will not necessarily appear in humans. And she defended efforts to clone people.
"If my science is giving babies to parents who have been dying to get one with their own genes, is my science worse than the one preparing bombs to kill people?" she asked. "I am creating life."
Several countries, including Britain, Israel, Japan and Germany, have banned human cloning, and measures banning it are pending in dozens of nations, including the United States. Legislation in Congress banning human cloning stalled last summer over whether medical research involving the cloning of human embryonic cells should be allowed.
"The president believes, like most Americans, that human cloning is deeply troubling," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "Despite the widespread skepticism among scientists and medical professionals about today's announcement, it underscores the need for the new Congress to act."
The Vatican, which holds that life begins at conception, has condemned cloning because extra embryos are destroyed in the process. Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, a Vatican bioethics expert, told the Italian news agency ANSA on Friday that governments should consider sanctions against cloning, "given that there is a sort of frenzy to do the worst, a race of who can get there first."
The 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention condemned Boisselier's announcement.
"There is a global race going on by rogue scientists who are operating outside the mainstream," said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists' public policy arm. "If you allow cloning at all, some people will try to reproduce them with predictably horrific results."
Nathan Diament, policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said he was concerned that religious and political leaders would overreact to Friday's announcement. The group opposes cloning for human reproduction but supports using the technology to develop lifesaving medical therapies.
Scientists said they looked forward to the promised proof.
"We'll wait and see, I guess. I'm still a skeptic and I'm hoping that it's not true," said University of Georgia cloning expert Steve Stice.
Mark Westhusin of Texas A&M University, who made headlines in February by cloning a cat, said if Boisselier's announcement is true, "I think they are taking a big risk in terms of health hazards to the child."
The American Society of Reproductive Medicine said in a statement: "We must be sure that clonal pregnancy is first possible and second safe in humans. Thus far, we don't have evidence for either. Based on the current state of knowledge, we do not believe taking a clonal pregnancy to term would be possible in humans."
In Rome, fertility doctor Severino Antinori, who said weeks ago that a cloned baby boy would be born in January through a separate effort, dismissed Clonaid's claims and said the group has no scientific credibility.
EDITORS: Associated Press writer John Pain contributed to this report.