Remember Dolly the sheep?
If you’re under the age of thirty, probably not. So here’s a refresher: in February 1997 a team of scientists at the University of Edinborough announced that they had successfully cloned a a six-year-old Finn Dorset sheep, Dolly, who was promoted in the press as the first cloned animal.
Technically speaking, Dolly wasn’t the first cloned animal. There had already been clones created through somatic cell transfer from embryonic stem cells, and by embryo splitting to create artificial twins. Dolly was the first clone created from an adult somatic cell, which is to say, not an embryonic stem cell but a fully differentiated specialized cell from a mature individual. That is cloning as the general public understands it, the sort of cloning that gives us mid-list Michael Keaton comedies and interminably-long Spider-Man stories.
For several months, Dolly captured the public imagination. It was as if science fiction had suddenly become reality. The future of biotechnology seemed limitless. Almost immediately, groups of scientists began drafting plans to create the first human clone.
In some circles, that was cause for worry.
It had taken the Scottish researchers some 277 attempts before they produced a single viable Dolly. That 0.361% success rate was problematic – there are people in this country who consider discarding frozen embryos to be murder, and they are not likely to be happy about wasting 250 of them to produce one child.
Many of the non-viable Dollies also had serious birth defects, and there were signs that Dolly herself was suffering from premature aging and other conditions that might be related to cloning.
And, of course, there are moral and ethical issues involving reproduction and sexual freedom which we’re not going into here. (Go listen to another podcast for that.)
Just to play it safe, President Bill Clinton announced a moratorium on federally funded human cloning projects and asked the private sector to be similarly cautious. Meanwhile the National Bioethics Advisory Commission was tasked with reviewing the legal, moral, and ethical issues raised by cloning and creating some guidelines for scientists to abide by.
It was too little, too late. Wheels were already in motion. Wheels that had been set in motion fifty years previously.
The Book That Tells the Truth
Claude Vorilhon was born on December 30, 1946 in the French village of Ambert in Vichy. His mother was a 15-year-old peasant girl, and his father was a Jewish refugee hiding from the Nazis. A married Jewish refugee, who abandoned his mistress and bastard once he realized his wife and legitimate children had survived the war.
In 1961, Claude ran away from his Catholic boarding school and hitchhiked to Paris with a song in his heart, a guitar in his hand, and 2,000fr in his wallet. He spent a few years busking and eventually caught the eye of record producer Lucien Morisse. Morisse transformed Claude Vorilhon into Claude Celler, a C-list pop star with a small string of hits including “La miel et la cannelle” (“Honey and Cinnamon”), “Madam Pipi” (about a washroom attendant), and the charmingly bizarre “Monsieur votre femme me trompe” (“Mister, Your Wife is Cheating On Me”).
That all came to a crashing halt when Morisse committed suicide in 1970.
Vorilhon pivoted to his first love, auto racing. At the peak of his pop career he had paid his way through the Winfield Racing School, and soon he became a fixture on French racetracks. Unfortunately, he was the Johnny Dickshot of French auto racing: talented enough to be on the track, but not talented enough to be serious competition.
So he pivoted again, founding Auto Pop, a magazine devoted to cars and racing. It allowed him to stay on the periphery of auto racing and keep the dream alive. It also gave him some stability his life had been missing. Over the next few years he married his girlfriend, nurse Marie-Paul Cristini, and had a daughter.
Then the Oil Crisis hit. In November 1973 the French government enacted legislation to help the country weather the storm, which included gasoline rationing, lowering the national speed limit… and banning all motor sports.
That put Claude Vorilhon in a tough spot. He was about to turn 27 and felt directionless. He had three failed careers behind him and no clear path to fame and fortune. He had developed a taste for a hard-partying lifestyle that he could no longer afford to indulge in. His wife and child were starting to feel like chains binding him to a boring bourgeois respectability.
On December 13th, Vorilhon decided to clear his head by going hiking in the Auvergne near Clermont-Ferrand. Deep in the mountains he became aware of a bright light descending from the heavens and turned to see a spaceship landing beside him. A small humanoid popped out of the craft, 4′ tall with greenish skin, almond-shaped eyes, a neatly-trimmed beard and a small shimmering bubble around its head.
(No, it was not the Great Gazoo.)
The alien welcomed Vorilhon and told the young man he had been chosen to spread a message of peace, love, and brotherhood to all mankind. Vorilhon went inside the alien spacecraft and spent six days reading the Bible, which the alien said was a true record of Earth’s history, albeit one that had been obscured by “mystical and futile sentences” added to the text over the centuries.
Earth, as it turns out, had been terraformed for hundreds of thousands of years by aliens known as the Elohim, who also seeded the planet with genetically engineered artificial life forms.
Then some 13,000 years ago a scientist named Yahweh created intelligent life in the form of the first humans. This was a terrible crime to the Elohim, and Yahweh’s rival Satan tried to correct it by bombarding the planet with atomic weapons. Fortunately, Yahweh saved all life on Earth by storing its genetic information on an ark in orbit around the planet.
After this unfortunate incident the Elohim had the sudden realization that they, too, were artificially created life forms. Instead of destroying their creations, they resolved to guide them to enlightenment through a series of appointed emissaries, including Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed… and now Claude Vorilhon.
When mankind set off the first atomic bombs it triggered the ultimate crisis for our species. Vorilhon was to guide humanity through this crisis by revealing the truth about our celestial origins and helping us to expel hate from our hearts. To reflect Vorilhon’s new position, the Elohim bestowed upon him a new name: Raël, the bringer of light.
In 1974, Raël published the story of his encounter in Le livre qui dit la vérité (“The Book That Tells the Truth”). He soon became a fixture of the French talk show circuit, enduring the mockery of countless television presenters so he could use their shows as a forum to spread his message.
Over the next several years Raël published more books expanding his story. He discovered that the alien who contacted him was not only Yahweh, but also Claude’s true father, making him Jesus’s half-brother. He took a trip through space to the Elohim homeworld, where he had an orgy with sex robots and was tempted by Satan. He revealed the wonders that awaited humanity once it joined the galactic community, promising a world governed by infallible geniuses with the promise of eternal life for all (and also sex robots).
In a relatively short time these books became the founding texts of a new religion: the International Raëlian Movement.
In some ways Raëlianism is fascinating, an “atheistic religion” that replaces God and the supernatural with ancient aliens and superscience, retaining the structure and narrative of mainstream Christianity while replacing its moral core with unfettered hedonism.
In other ways, it’s depressingly predictable, like its slow transformation into a cult of personality whose primary goal seems to helping the leader through his midlife crisis by surrounding him with with nubile and sexually available young women, even though he looks like Broken Matt Hardy wearing a samurai space suit made out of sweatpants.
But today we’re not here to tear apart UFO cult and its founder’s weird sexual hang-ups, daddy issues, and pathological need to be uncritically adored. We’re here to talk about human cloning. So let’s get back to the present. By which I mean 1997.
At this point, the International Raëlian movement was in a weird place. It had grown quickly over the previous few decades, but that growth had plateaued due to a series of small scandals and the increasing skepticism of the public. Growing anti-cult sentiment had also driven the cult’s leaders out of France and across the Atlantic to Quebec.
Their big evangelical project, a combination spaceport and embassy for the Elohim, had run into some insoluble obstacles. For symbolic reasons the embassy had to be built in Israel, but for some reason the chief rabbis did not seem well-disposed to a fringe religion that had chosen a swastika inside a Star of David for its symbol. (You can insert a rant about how the swastika is an ancient religious symbol that pre-dates the Nazis if you like, but good luck using that argument to sway a bunch of Holocaust survivors.)
Then along came Dolly, and Raël saw an opportunity.
Raëlianism promised eternal life to its adherents, but in the absence of the supernatural this was to be accomplished through a process involving cloning and memory transfer. This had seemed well beyond the capabilities of mere humans, but now? We were almost halfway there. If the Raëlians could put themselves on the forefront of human cloning, it would help legitimate them and spread their message.
On March 11, 1997, Raël held a press conference at the Las Vegas Flamingo Hilton to accounce the formation of Valient Ventures, Ltd., an umbrella company that offered a whole suite of services related to human cloning and genetic engineering. Its subsidiaries included:
- Ovulaid, which would sell you unfertilized human ova;
- Insuraclone, which would indefinitely bank your genetic material for future cloning efforts;
- Clonaid, which would create a clone of you or a loved one after death;
- and eventually Clonapet, which is pretty self-explanatory.
Raël chose his most trusted disciple, Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, to run Valient Ventures.
Boisselier was a French chemist with multiple PhDs in physical and analytical chemistry from the University of Dijon and the University of Houston. She had joined the cult a during a bitter divorce; the Raëlians helped her get her groove back by making her feel sexually desirable and intelligent again. Her scientific mind and boundless ambition made her one of Raël’s favorites and she was quickly admitted to his inner circle.
If there was anyone in the International Raëlian movement who could make human cloning a reality, it was Dr. Brigitte Boisselier.
She was about to have plenty of free time to work on the problem. Once her ties to the Raëlians became public her primary employer, Air Liquide, fired her from her assistant research director position.
She also had to find somewhere else to do her research. It turns out Valient Ventures was an off-the-shelf offshore company that Raël had purchased through mail order, little more than a tax ID number and a post office box in the Bahamas. Human cloning wasn’t strictly illegal in the Bahamas, but they weren’t exactly keen on the publicity and quickly revoked its corporate charter.
That didn’t slow the Raëlians down. They continued to solicit customers for their suite of cloning services. Their suite of very expensive cloning services. Insuraclone charged subscribers $175 per year; Ovulaid sold ova for $5,000 a pop; and the full Clonaid service cost over $200,000.
The high prices were not a deterrent. Soon, Raëlians had a list of over 250 individuals who were interested in creating a human clone, ranging from infertile and same-sex couples longing for children to decrepit millionaires who just wanted to live forever.
Now that they had a list of potential customers, the Raëlians did… nothing.
It turns out that most of those potential customers were waiting for someone else to make the first move.
The Raëlians were not equipped to make that move. They did not have an established cloning process, a fully-equipped biotech lab, or staff. Just empty promises. So they did what they could do, which was nothing.
Over three years later, in July 2000, the Raëlians were approached by the parents of a 10-month old boy who had died during routine surgery. In the months since his passing, they had become obsessed with the idea of getting their boy back in some way. They stumbled across the Clonaid website on the Internet and reached out to Boisselier.
They seemed like the perfect clients. They were normal people, not Raëlians. They were flush with money from a malpractice suit filed after the boy’s death, and gladly plunked down $500,000 to help Boisselier start a new company, Bioserv. They were even willing to sue if the state or federal government tried to shut Clonaid down.
The only thing they insisted on was strict anonymity.
Boisselier did not seem to understand the concept of “strict anonymity” because she immediately launched a public relations blitz to drum up more money. She awed the press by showing off a veritable army of Raëlian surrogates, including her own daughter, which would enable Bioserv and Clonaid to knock out rapid-fire cloning attempts in spite of the very low success rate. She also hinted that she was operating a secret cloning lab inside the United States, where a team of three specialists – a geneticist, a biochemist, and an obstetrician – were working on the project full-time.
Well, this all came as quite a shock to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which had assumed oversight over all cloning efforts inside the country’s borders. The agency sent a series of urgent notices to Bioserv and Clonaid demanding that they comply with the regulatory process, starting with the filing of an investigational new drug application. Clonaid representatives rather pointedly refused to respond, denying that the FDA had any jurisdiction over cloning. (To be fair, they had a point – the FDA has a history of dramatically overreaching.)
All of the publicity earned Raël and Boisselier invitations to testify before the United States Congress as part of a panel on the ethics of cloning – well, it earned Boisselier an invitation, and she refused to go unless Raël was also invited. At the hearings the two presented a message tailor-made for their audience, framing cloning as a civil libertarian issue related to religious liberty and individual reproductive rights. They also stressed that no matter what steps Congress took, they could not be turned from their path, with Rael declaring: “Thankfully, nothing can stop science.”
Actually, it turned out one thing could stop science: a building manager in Nitro, West Virginia. He saw Boisselier on the news and recognized her as the woman to whom was renting the gym of a decomissioned high school. He alerted the FDA, who raided the facility and discovered an unlicensed biotech laboratory.
The FDA quickly realized that the lab was woefully inadequate for a serious attempt at human cloning. It wasn’t sterile. The equipment they sized was nothing more complicated than a few computers, microscopes, and refrigerators. They figured it was all for show, to impress potential Clonaid clients with no background in science.
Even so, the agency wasn’t keen to publicize the fact that an illegal cloning lab was being run right under their noses. They offered Clonaid a deal: they would keep everything quiet as long as the Raëlians did everything above board from now on.
The Raëlians did not want that deal. They instead used the raid to generate more publicity, framing it as anti-scientific and a violation of their religious liberties. They threatened to move their operations overseas, claiming to have opened secret Clonaid branch offices and laboratories all over the world.
Eventually, the dribs and drabs of information leaking out of Nitro allowed reporters to identify the hitherto anonymous clients: West Virginia state legislator Mark Allen Hunt and his wife. The Hunts almost immediately withdrew their backing, but it still managed to derail Mark’s political career for a few years. He later publicly slagged the Raëlians as “press hogs” and got most of his money back.
Say Yes! to Human Cloning
Raël and Bosselier kept soldiering on, though
In July 2001, Clonaid loaned a South Korean science museum a prototype unit of the RMX-2010, their proprietary “embryonic cell fusion system.” It caused quite a stir, because no one had any idea what the heck it was supposed to do even after reading numerous press releases and purported documentation, and the Raëlians refused any attempts to disassemble and examine the machine.
Raël followed that up with the publication of his latest book, Say Yes! To Human Cloning. (Yes, that’s a book, not a terrible moisturizer.) To say that it leaned into the controversy is a tremendous understatement. It starts off with Raël referring to those who were against cloning as “neo-Neanderthals” and declaring: “[I]f they are against human cloning and eternal life, then let them die.”
The book is largely is devoted to brushing away the objections to cloning with glib generalizations. In some cases, Raël has a point. Sure, cloning isn’t natural, but lots of things aren’t natural. No, you can’t replace a dead child with a clone, but people try to do it the old fashioned way all the time. And the jury was still out on the ideas that clones would be monsters with shortened life spans. But for the most part Raël’s arguments are weak. They are not the thoughts of someone thoughtfully engaged with the topic but someone responding to attacks on his philosophy with callous knee-jerk arguments.
Particularly bizarre is his enthusiastic embrace of genetic engineering, where he argues that genetically engineered children will be happier because their parents have already chosen its interests before birth and will tailor their lives to that interest. I feel like someone should put Raël in a room with LaVar Ball for an hour and see if he changes his mind.
What’s telling, though is how Raël chooses to frame the accomplishments of Clonaid to date, not as scientific achievements, but as a public relations coup for which he deserves all the credit but none of the responsibility:
Clonaid.com worked perfectly. First of all, for a minimal investment of $3,000 in U.S. funds, it got us media coverage worth more than $15 million… I am still laughing… I have returned to the helm as spiritual leader of the Raelian movement, and have no more responsibility within the Clonaid project.
In August 2001, Raël, Boisselier, and several other fringe scientists interested in cloning were invited to a Symposium on Human Cloning held by the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy hoped to scare them straight with horror stories from scientists who had been working in animal cloning. It backfired spectacularly. Boisselier deflected tough questions about her process and methods with answers that but were technically and scientifically meaningless but which were delivered confidently. The other scientists at the weren’t fooled, but the press was, and it uncritically reported Boisselier’s claims as if they were fact.
In February 2002, Clonaid announced that they had found a new client – a rich Israeli businessman with a terminal illness, who wanted a clone to carry on in his stead after his death. The Raëlians were happy to take his money to set up their labs, and also perfectly happy to downplay the fact that a clone would have his genetics but not his personality or memory.
By the middle of the year, Clonaid now had serious competition in the race to clone the first human. On the serious side, Advanced Cell Technologies announced that they had created cloned human embryos from adult cells but had not allowed them to develop into blastocysts. On the crackpot side, Italian gynecologist Dr. Severino Antinori, known as “Mr. Miracle” for helping a 62-year-old woman conceive, announced that he expected to produce a successful human clone in just under a year.
On December 27th, 2002 Raël and Boisselier held a press conference at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood, Florida.
They announced that a Clonaid customer had given birth to the first successful human clone. The customer was an 31-year-old American Jewish woman whose husband was sterile, and she had sought Clonaid’s assistance after countless rounds of futile fertility treatments. She provided the cell sample and ova herself, and carried the embryo to term without the use of a Clonaid surrogate. The child was born at 11:55 AM on December 25th and was a healthy baby girl named “Eve.”
Boisselier revealed that Clonaid had already produced ten pregnancies, though five of those were miscarried in the first month. Eve was the first successful birth, but they expected to produce four more clone babies by the end of February, two of them clones of dead children.
Boisselier provided absolutely nothing to back up her statements. There was no baby, no parents, no DNA, no medical charts or raw data, no testimony from Clonaid doctors or technicians. She provided no information about where Eve was born, save that it was in the United States. She wouldn’t even narrow down which time zone it was in.
She did promise that there would be more data to come. To that end Clonaid had recruited Dr. Michael Guillen, the science editor for ABC News, to test and verify their claims. Guillen was currently in the process of putting together a team of independent world-class experts to conduct the tests.
The scientific community was skeptical, to say the least – without any data to back them up, Boisselier’s claims were meaningless – but many held back on overt criticism, waiting to see how Guillen’s tests turned out. Dr. Antinori and Advanced Cell Technologies called foul, but their complaints seemed like sour grapes because their own cloning efforts had turned up a big fat goose egg.
The press, on the other hand, breathlessly reported on every development. To their credit, they did mention that Clonaid’s claims were as yet unproven, though those disclaimers tended to come at the end of articles, long after the sensationalistic headlines like “Dawn of the Duplicates!”
Then things started to really go sideways.
On December 31st, family court lawyer Bernard Siegel filed a suit in Broward County Circuit Court looking to have a judge appoint a special guardian for Baby Eve, claiming Clonaid was trying to exploit the clone for publicity purposes and keeping it from away medical specialists who could give it the monitoring and treatments its unusual condition might need. Siegel was a meddling busybody who had absolutely no connection to Eve… but he kinda had a point. Clonaid spokesmen responded by claiming that mother and child had left the United States for Israel.
On January 9th, Michael Guillen announced that due to a complete lack of cooperation and communication from Clonaid and its representatives, he would no longer be involved in testing their claims. He claimed, “It’s entirely possible Clonaid’s announcement is part of an elaborate hoax intended to bring publicity to the Raëlian movement.” Gregory Stock of UCLA agreed, noting: “You can have proof in a day. They don’t need a week.”
Raël and Boisselier made appearances on Connie Chung Tonight and Crossfire, where they seemed defensive and angry. Behind the scenes Boisslier denounced the negative press coverage, declaring, “This is (bullshit). I have five cloned babies.” At this point, though, no one believed them because they had gone from failing to provide proof to adamantly refusing to provide proof.
On January 22, Siegel had his day in court, and it was a disaster for Clonaid. Thomas Kaenzig testified that the company was not officially incorporated anywhere, had no board of directors or executives other than Boisselier, and generally refused to answer any other questions. Kaenzig, whose official job title was Vice President of Clonaid, was actually an independent contractor and little more than a webmaster whose primary responsibility was forwarding contact forms from the Clonaid website to Boisselier. The company was little more than a shell, bringing in clients who then made private donations to unregistered companies owned by Boisselier, Raël and the movement.
The company won in the end, though. Judge John Fruscianti was forced to dismiss the case, since according to every report Eve had been taken abroad to Israel which placed her outside the reach of American courts. When contacted for comment, Israeli immigration officials drily noted that they had no idea whether Eve was in Israel, since customs forms don’t ask arrivals whether they were cloned abroad.
Boisselier and Clonaid claimed that Eve and her parents were going to “vanish forever” to protect their privacy. Raël, hedging his bets, declared:
If it’s real, [Brigitte] deserves the Nobel prize because she is making history and it’s the most fantastic scientific advance in history of humanity. If it’s not true, she’s also making history with one of the biggest hoaxes in history, so in both ways it’s wonderful. Because, thanks to what she is doing now, the whole world knows about the Raëlian movement. I am very happy with that…
He once again denied having anything to do with Clonaid’s day-to-day operations, providing only spiritual guidance to its employees. Unless of course the clone was real in which case he deserved all the credit.
Clonaid kept on chugging along, though Boisselier claimed to have moved their cloning operations from the United States to another undisclosed country.
At the beginning of April she announced the births of two more cloned children, including a baby girl born to two Dutch lesbians and the clone of a Japanese couple’s dead son. Over the following months she claimed that a total of thirteen clones had already been successfully delivered and twenty three more were on their way. As usual she provided no evidence.
But a funny thing happened: as the year went on, the number of cloned children never increased. It didn’t increase in 2004 either. It stayed fixed at thirteen children. When asked about this Boisselier would just assert that the children exist, and change the topic of conversation to her new project, an artificial womb called the “Babytron.” Which sounds like a horrible robot that I’m sure Bethesda is putting in Fallout 5 right now.
And that’s it. Clonaid just kind of petered out, or went underground. Their website is still up but stopped being updated in 2009, and is mostly just an ad to convince you to download Raëlian literature. They never provided any proof that they had cloned a single baby, and they never will.
So What Really Happened?
There are a couple of possibilities here.
Maybe Eve really exists, is a clone, and is being hidden for privacy reasons, just like the Raëlians claim. Maybe she wasn’t really a true clone and that fact is being covered up, or maybe she developed some sort of medical condition shortly after birth but before she could be tested.
On the other hand, why are we relying on Eve? There are supposedly twelve more Clonaid babies out there. Why can’t we test any of them? Where are they? Why have they never come forward? Several individuals have claimed to be Clonaid babies over the years, but their personal chronologies just don’t line up.
It seems far more likely that Eve never existed in the first place. In the twenty years since the announcement of her birth there have been no human clones. Not a single one.
Ethics aside, the technical challenges are just incredibly daunting. We’ve improved the success rate for cloning animals, but it’s still hovering around a dismal 15%. Primates prevent their own unique challenges. Scientists at the Oregon National Primate Research Center worked on the process for fifteen years and were only able to get one embryo to implant, which was subsequently miscarried. It wasn’t until recently that we got the first cloned primates, a pair of crab-eating macaques created in a Chinese lab in 2018.
So if Eve was a hoax, well, who is responsible?
I’ve heard some suggestions that Boisselier and Raël were the victims, but I’m not sure who would be conducting that hoax since as far as anyone can tell Clonaid has no employees. On the other hand, Clonaid also has no organizational structure, no formal legal status and no document repository that would enable it to be investigated, so who knows who might be involved?
Even money is that Boisselier is behind it. She was the only person who personally benefited from the hoax, as her efforts got her named Raël’s successor in 2005. Internal Raëlian documents that were leaked to the press by disgruntled ex-members seemed to back up that viewpoint, claiming that Boisselier was a fraud and that Eve never existed. No one inside the movement seems to care, probably because any dissent was purged years ago. Boisselier seems happy to leave Clonaid in the past, preferring to focus on more headline-grabbing projects like “ClitorAid” and “StemAid.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if Raël was also in on it. The International International Raëlian Movement benefited tremendously from the hoax, receiving millions of dollars in free publicity and thousands of new converts in the months after the birth announcement. It also wouldn’t be the first hoax Raël had orchestrated, either (Google “the Teesdale affair” for a real head-scratcher). And, let’s face it, the guy claims to be an immortal half-alien messiah. Lying about a clone baby is hardly the worst thing he’s ever done.
So there you have it. Eve almost certainly never existed except as a publicity stunt. And if she does exist, well, we’ll never know, will we? There’s literally no way to find out.
Or maybe, just maybe, somewhere out there is a 19 year old Israeli girl about to take a 23 & Me test and get the shock of a lifetime.
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