01/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
On Dec. 27 a brave new era in human reproduction began. Or not. The first shock? A startling claim, by one Brigitte Boisselier, that an American woman had given birth the day before to the world's first cloned baby, nicknamed Eve. The second shock? That Boisselier's company, Clonaid, is an offshoot of the Raelians, a sect that believes that all humans descend from aliens who visited Earth 25,000 years ago.
Not surprisingly, the claim raised questions. Lots of them. Here are the eight most prominent (and one extra).
Whoa! Is this possible?
Most experts doubt it. "The presentation they gave [Boisselier's initial press conference] wouldn't have gone far even at a seventh-grade science fair," says Dr. Arthur Caplan, chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, who headed a U.N. panel on cloning. Most suspicious, he adds, is the claim that 5 of Clonaid's 10 attempted clones resulted in pregnancies. "The best, most experienced people fail 99 times out of 100. To think these people hit a home run out of the box totally defies logic."
Primates are especially difficult, scientists say; most attempts lead only to grossly deformed embryos. Still, the basic technology is widely available, and a few experts believe Clonaid could have pulled it off. Says Dr. Richard Seed, a Chicago embryologist who has cloned several embryos without bringing them to term: "It's 98 percent has-to-be-true."
Okay...so what in the name of Han Solo is a Raelian?
First, the back story: On Dec. 13, 1973, Claude Vorilhon, a French race-car driver and journalist, was hiking up a volcano in the Auvergne region when, he says, he ran smack into a party of spacemen, whose leader introduced himself as Yahweh (the Hebrew name of God). The aliens—called Elohim—were, he says, scientifically advanced beings who, thanks to cloning, can live for more than 10,000 years. Vorilhon, now 56, says they came from their home planet to tell him: (a) that all humans descend from clones of Elohim deposited here 25,000 years ago; and (b) from now on, he would be their prophet on Earth, and he should be called Raël.
"I was happily married, I had two little children—I had to leave my job and family and go around the world to speak," he says. "It was not my choice." Raël and Mme. Vorilhon divorced in 1982. These days his significant other is a 27-year-old follower named Sophie; they became involved when she was 16 and he 45.
The sect, which claims 55,000 members worldwide, operates no churches, though Raël did briefly open a theme park called UFOLand outside Montreal. At "sensual meditation" seminars, worshippers may confess, and act on, their fantasies—unlike most major faiths, Raelianism condones group sex. Still, says Susan Palmer, a religion professor at Dawson College in Montreal who is writing a book on the cult, "they have a strong ethical system. They advocate nuclear disarmament. They don't read newspapers because they are against killing trees."
And who is Brigitte Boisselier?
A French chemist, Raelian bishop and divorced mother of three. In 1993, while an executive for the firm Air Liquide, which makes liquid nitrogen, she joined the Raelians. "I became convinced theirs was the best explanation of human origins," Boisselier, 46, explains. She says it cost her dearly: Air Liquide fired her, she claims, and she lost custody of her youngest daughter, Iphigenie, now 13, because a judge disapproved of her lifestyle. Boisselier moved to the U.S. in 1999 and until recently taught chemistry at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y.
She has run Clonaid, founded by Raël in 1991, for the past 2½ years. (The company won't reveal its funding sources but claims to be independent of the Raelian movement, which says it relies on tithing from its members.) "I've had to face so many people calling me a Frankenstein," she says. "I hope one day people will realize I'm not such a bad monster."
What's known about Eve and her family?
Not much. Boisselier has divulged little besides the parents' ages (Mom 31, Dad 37), the fact that the father is infertile and that neither he nor his wife is a Raelian.
What does all this cost?
It's free for now, though Boisselier says some of her first 10 clients are investors in the company; in the future, the fee will be about $200,000.
How will I know if this is legit?
Boisselier insists that DNA tests—to be arranged by Michael Guillen, a former ABC News science editor unaffiliated with Clonaid or Raelianism—will prove within days that Eve is a genetic replica of her mother. She also promises that more clones are on the way: four over the next six weeks.
The procedure, Raelians say, is the first step toward a future in which scientists could reproduce an adult's body in a few hours and download his mind into the empty vessel. "Then," says Raël, "you can live forever."
For the record: How is a clone created?
The nucleus of an unfertilized egg is removed. Then the nucleus from another cell (in this case, from the mother's skin) is inserted, and chemicals stimulate the egg to begin dividing as if it had been fertilized. In so-called therapeutic cloning, the resulting embryo is used for its stem cells—which scientists hope will someday cure ailments such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease—and destroyed before it becomes a fetus. In reproductive cloning, the embryo is implanted in a uterus, where it can grow into a baby animal—or human.
Whether or not Eve is for real, is human cloning inevitable?
Some scientists believe so, though at the moment, human reproductive cloning is illegal in two dozen countries, with many in the U.S. calling for a ban as well. Dr. Gregory Stock, whose recent book Redesigning Humans explores the implications of new genetic technology, expects reproductive cloning to be common in 10 years. But he predicts a fizzling out once the novelty wears off. "I think it will become a technology not many people would be interested in," he says, adding, "as soon as you have a few babies, then people would see that they were just—babies."
Just one more: If I have a lock of Elvis' hair, will I, someday, be able to create The King Clone?
You might, but it's unlikely that you'd find a viable piece of DNA: Too much time has passed since he left the building.
Don Sider and Lori Rozsa in Miami, Hope Hamashige in New York City, Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles, Giovanna Breu in Chicago, Bob Stewart in San Antonio and Praxilla Trabattoni in Rome