Claims of Another Clone Birth Prompt Skepticism, Concern

July 7, 2008 - 8:14 PM

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The Australian government Thursday dismissed claims by a controversial sect that a woman gave birth to a cloned baby boy at a Sydney hospital last week.

Clonaid, the human cloning group linked to the alien-worshipping Raelian sect, asserts that the alleged birth in Australia is the sixth clone it has successfully created, and the first in a "new series."

Another seven cloned babies in this "second generation" would be born in various countries in the next two weeks, it said.

In the absence of proof or independent verification, the group's claims have been widely dismissed as fraudulent.

Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott said the latest claim was "the medical equivalent of a UFO story."

The sect that controls Clonaid says it believes humans were created by extra-terrestrials. In 1997 the group, led by former French journalist Claude Vorilhon, who goes by the name "Rael," opened a theme park in Canada called "UFOland."

Abbott told Australian television cloning was "illegal, immoral and dangerous."

Clonaid said no laws in Australia were broken, because the baby had been conceived in another, unspecified country.

Several Australian lawmakers Thursday called for police to investigate the claims.

Neither the state police in Sydney, the Australian Federal Police, nor the office of Australia's Attorney-General, could shed any light Thursday on whether anyone was investigating whether Clonaid had broken any laws in the country.

Cloning involves the creation of an embryo using a patient's DNA and an egg cell from which the DNA has been removed. The child would be a genetic copy of the person whose DNA was used, and share some of that person's physical characteristics.

Proponents say it offers 21st century options to those who are unable to conceive, same-sex couples, and parents who have lost a child.

Despite strong medical, religious and ethical opposition, and moves to outlaw the activity around the world, Clonaid and several other maverick scientists have been racing to be the first to pioneer a successful clone birth.

While Clonaid claims already to have done so -- now six times -- another would-be cloner, U.S.-based fertility expert Panos Zavos, said last month he had transferred a cloned human embryo into a woman. On Feb. 4, however, Zavos said the pregnancy had failed.


'The world isn't ready for proof'

According to Clonaid vice president Thomas Kaenzig said the latest baby was born last Thursday to an infertile Australian couple, who were not members of the Raelians. They had since taken the boy home, where he was being monitored by a local pediatrician.

In a phone interview Thursday, Kaenzig said the man's DNA had been used to create the clone, and his partner herself - as opposed to a surrogate mother - had been able to carry the baby to term.

The process had been monitored in Sydney by Clonaid head Brigitte Boisselier, a chemist who is also a "bishop" in the Raelian movement.

Since the alleged birth of the first Clonaid baby, Eve, in December 2002, the company has provided the world with no proof of the cloning, nor indeed of the babies' existence.

Kaenzig said Clonaid had compiled plenty of evidence from "multiple testing" in each case, but would not release it until "mankind is ready, or public opinion is ready."

He said attempts to outlaw human cloning internationally included a proposal by France to jail for 20 years any French citizen involved in the practice, anywhere in the world. Boisselier is a French citizen.

Producing proof that the babies were clones would simply be providing evidence that could be used in court against Clonaid scientists.

Kaenzig shrugged off skepticism and ridicule, saying Clonaid's responsibility was to its investors and to the families "we have been able to make happy."

"Let [other] people think what they want. We are proud of what we did. We will never be able to convince religious fanatics who oppose human cloning [and] forever skeptical scientists."

He said Clonaid's first priority was to the families of the babies. After the birth of Eve, Boisselier had had to choose between her "credibility as a scientist" and the families' privacy.

Kaenzig expressed optimism that public opinion was shifting away from opposition to human cloning. "It's only a matter of time -- time is on our side."


'Free advertising'

Some critics say scientists like Zavos and Boisselier are chasing publicity rather than an actual breakthrough, and have urged media organizations not to report on their claims.

"We appeal to those making the decisions about the priority given to these stories to wait until real evidence appears before providing these individuals with such a prominent platform in the future," a group of top reproductive biology scientists in Britain said in a recent open letter.

Since Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1997, human cloning is no longer deemed scientifically impossible. With groups like Clonaid vying to be first, some pro-life campaigners argue that what they do and say cannot be ignored, but at the say time are concerned about the PR aspect.

"In one breath I'd say any reporting on the media on this would need to be done, and done extremely skeptically," David Cotton of New South Wales Right to Life said from Sydney Thursday.

"On the other hand, no matter what reporting is done, it is just playing into their hands - free advertising for themselves," he added.

Australia's parliament in August 2002 unanimously banned human cloning, whether to produce babies, or for the harvesting of stem cells from cloned embryos - a practice proponents call "therapeutic cloning" because of potential future medical benefits from stem cells, and pro-lifers call "destructive cloning" because the embryos is killed in the process.

But Cotton pointed out that, even with this "extremely tight legislation," groups like Clonaid were still making their "outlandish claims."

Whether true or not, Cotton said the announcement "demonstrates the Raelians' lack of concern for the baby but rather the dominating concern for their advertising, or possibly for the infertile couple who they allege they've now provided a wonderful baby for."

The group was not considering the risk and potential damage to the child allegedly created, he said.

"Also, what about all the failures? They don't look at that side of things, do they?"

He recalled that Dolly's creators said the sheep was the first success after some 270 failed attempts, including miscarriages and serious medical defects.

Asked about the medical concerns, Kaenzig dismissed them, saying it was wrong to look at failures in some species of animals and assume there would be the same problems in humans.

Some species had shown themselves to be highly resistant to cloning, while others were easily cloned.

He said the eight successful pregnancies in Clonaid's "second generation" arose out of 20 implantations, and acknowledged that the others had ended in miscarriage. But, he added, there were failures in in-vitro-fertilization (IVF) treatment too.

Opinion polls routinely indicate that the vast majority of people oppose human cloning.

Zavos has argued that there was similarly strong opposition to IVF when first pioneered three decades ago.

One of two British scientists who pioneered IVF and oversaw birth of the first test-tube baby, Robert Edwards, last month appeared to give cautious backing to Zavos' work, telling a Scottish newspaper that once the "temporary problem" of defects was overcome, "then the true ethics of cloning will emerge, free from arguments about malformations."

"Will there be any real harm in helping the occasional infertile couple to have their own child, while controlling the excesses of cloning?" the Sunday Herald quoted Edwards as saying.

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