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Quebec-based sect could soon be cloning humans, leader tells U.S. panel
By ROBERT RUSSO

WASHINGTON (CP) - Among the bookish biochemists and medical ethicists appearing before a U.S. congressional panel on cloning, there was no mistaking the founder of Clonaid. He was the one wearing the snow-white pantsuit with padded shoulders, matching leather lace-ups and with his hair pulled back and up from his balding pate like a follicle geyser.

Rael, founder of the Quebec-based Raelian Movement, was given all the respect due a mad scientist Wednesday when he appeared before a subcommittee that seems bent on banning human cloning.

"They're a group of space-cadet weirdos," said Randolph Wicker, leader of another group appearing to encourage human cloning.

Dr. Panos Zavos, who represented a European consortium that is working on experiments which may lead to human cloning, also sought to distance himself from the Raelians.

"We are not associated in any way, shape or form," he told the committee members.

None of this seemed to perturb Rael. The leader of the Raelians cheerfully insisted he was ready to clone a human being within months and prepared to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent any legislative attempt to block him.

While any challenge is being fought, Rael said, there are 100 female Raelians ready to carry cloned embryos.

"They say we're a cult. But we're not a religion. Our god is science," Rael said before testifying.

Money would also seem to be of importance to the organization. They plan to charge about $200,000 US for each successfully cloned human.

The parents of a 10-month-old infant who died during a routine operation are first in line for the Raelians' cloning experiments, said Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, the scientific leader of the Raelian cloning project.

But Rael said the ultimate goal is to allow adults to clone themselves shortly before their deaths.

"We would transfer, or download, or upload, your personality and your soul into this new being," he said.

Clones are created when genetic material from a single cell is injected into an egg cell that has had its genes removed. The resulting baby is like an identical twin born years later.

Rael, who once was a French racing-car driver known as Claude Vorilhon, claims he was apprehended by extraterrestrials on a rural French road. He was informed by the aliens he was a clone of the supreme extraterrestrial being and the last of the prophets including Jesus and Mohammed.

He said he was released by the aliens with the mission to lead a technological revolution around the world.

Along the way, encouraging free love became part of the plan.

The Raelians may be viewed as a flaky cult but their financing of a cloning project is being taken very seriously.

Clonaid and Boisselier have received respectful, if not fretful, coverage in the New York Times newspaper, Wired magazine and the CBS program 60 Minutes.

The Raelians had a somewhat cooler reception during Wednesday's hearings.

"No reputable scientist, other than cults, cranks, kooks and capitalists believe that science is ready for human cloning," said Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Canadians, who are used to reading either mirthful or dismissive accounts of the Raelians' adventures, might wonder why the group's leader was afforded the honour of appearing before a congressional subcommittee.

But Congressman Billy Tauzin, who chairs the powerful energy committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, said there is an urgent need to hear from the Raelians.

"If the Raelians are to be believed, they are only weeks away from implanting a human embryo in a surrogate mother," Tauzin said.

"Through this hearing, the public will hopefully learn whether the Raelian experiment is a hoax, or whether, as Time magazine reported, this group may be farther along in human cloning than the competition."

Despite the skepticism, Rael seemed delighted to have alighted at such a prominent perch in the halls of terrestrial power.

"I'm very happy we are discussing all of this. There's freedom here that you don't have in other countries."

Asked about the skepticism, he said: "There has always been skepticism of leading scientists. Look at Columbus, look at Galileo."

"The first vaccines were condemned, the first planes crashed."

The Raelians claim to have a medical team working toward cloning a human being at an undisclosed location in the United States.

Several U.S. states have outlawed human cloning and Tauzin said he stands ready to introduce legislation to ban it across the country.

Clonaid, which Rael said is not directly tied to his movement, refuses to say where the experiments are taking place and who is conducting them.


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