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The God game no more
The feds crack down on a human cloning lab
U.S. News and World Report, July 9, 2001 issue (Posted July 1, 2001)
For Brigitte Boisselier, cloning a human being isn't just good science –it's a religious imperative. As a trained chemist and a bishop of a sect that believes scientists from another planet created all life on Earth, Boisselier and other followers of the "Raelian" religion say cloning is key to humanity's future. Despite warnings from scientists who say such practices are fraught with potential health risks, some Raelians have built a secret U.S. laboratory and vowed to create the first human clone this year. They also believe the feds have no legal right to stop them.
Washington, unsurprisingly, disagrees. U.S. News has learned that a federal grand jury in Syracuse, N.Y., near Boisselier's home, has subpoenaed telephone records and other documents in what appears to be an unprecedented probe into the sect's activities. Food and Drug Administration agents visited the lab recently and ordered any human cloning experiments to cease. Says one official: "There's a timeout in force."
The crackdown marks the first time that investigators have uncovered a secret lab tied to human cloning in the United States, government sources say. Among areas under investigation are possible violations of FDA regulations that govern experimental medical procedures. Officials believe the lab was set up by Clonaid, a company billed, in 1997, as the world's first human-cloning company. The firm was founded by Claude Vorilhon, a colorful French race-car driver and former journalist now known to his followers as the prophet Rael. "I haven't done anything that is illegal, and I will never do," says Boisselier, who heads the group's cloning effort. No charges have been filed, and no lab materials have been seized, Boisselier says. She adds that she will always respect the laws of this country but says she plans to continue her cloning work–even if it means going overseas. "I want to concentrate on the science," she says. "My decision is almost made. We will move out." In the meantime, Clonaid's scientists will continue to do cloning research in their lab, Boisselier says. Officials declined to reveal the extent of the group's progress.
The federal investigation was prompted by statements Boisselier made this spring, when she said Clonaid was just weeks away from being ready to clone a human being. On March 27, Boisselier received a letter from the FDA, warning that the company might be in violation of FDA regulations. A similar letter was hand-delivered to the office of Panayiotis Zavos, a fertility expert from Lexington, Ky., who also says he plans to clone a human.
UFOs. But it was the Raelians who really got the FDA's attention. For months, Boisselier has told reporters that she has three scientists and a physician trying to resurrect an 11-month-old infant–the deceased son of a former state legislator, whom the Raelians refuse to identify–through genetic regeneration. Rael, who says he was contacted by a UFO in 1973, has tens of thousands of followers, largely in France, Canada, and East Asia. Cloning plays an important role in the religion's belief that someday human scientists will engineer their own life-forms and continue an endless circle of scientific creation. Dozens of young Raelian women, including Boisselier's daughter, have volunteered to donate eggs and act as surrogate mothers for a cloned embryo.
In March, Boisselier and Rael testified before a congressional committee about their human-cloning work. But they have refused to offer any proof that they're actually doing what they claim. "Wait and see," Boisselier has said. Not content to wait for the Raelians to one day produce a bouncing baby clone, Rep. James Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican, wrote to the FDA on May 29 to ask what the agency knew about Clonaid. The FDA provided few details, but officials confirmed that they had located the secret lab and halted work on human cloning, says Peter Sheffield, a spokesperson for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "The group appears to be well funded, and they're certainly hellbent on succeeding in efforts to clone a human being," Sheffield says. "This combination is frightening and too important to ignore, regardless of how bizarre the Raelian movement may be." FDA officials have no comment, saying only that their investigation is continuing.
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