Bizarre Cloners and Serious Questions

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky December 10, 2008
Biopolitical Times
Bernann McKinney with one of the clones of her dog Booger.

[Cross-posted from "What's New in Life Science Research," at ScienceBlogs]

Obligatory puns notwithstanding, cloning - of humans, animals, and embryos for stem cells - is no laughing matter.The various applications raise different serious concerns, many of which have been discussed on this blog.

But before we leave the topic, it would be a shame not to note that the field has attracted more than its share of bizarre figures. The record is amusing to consider, in a sick sort of way, and important as a cautionary tale about the consequences of a free-for-all approach to human biotechnologies. Here are a few of the most colorful of the cloning characters...

Richard Seed is a Chicago physicist turned biologist who touched off a media storm with his January 1998 announcement that he would soon open a cloning clinic. According to Wikipedia, Seed first said that he would produce cloned babies for infertile couples, and later talked about cloning himself and his wife. Seed told NPR, "God intended for man to become one with God. Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first serious step in becoming one with God."

Rael - formerly a race car test driver named Claude Vorilhon - is the leader of a religious cult that believes human beings were created by alien cloners. The Raelians founded a human cloning company called Clonaid in 1997; announced in 2000 that an anonymous US couple had given them $1 million to clone their dead daughter from preserved cells, and claimed in 2002 that a cloned baby named Eve had been born. The Raelians were covered worldwide in news stories and editorials; Rael, bedecked in robes and a top-knot hairdo, testified at a US Congressional hearing.

Hwang Woo-suk is the South Korean cloning scientist who was lauded around the world for having produced the first stem cell lines using SCNT, and hailed by his government as its "Supreme Scientist" - until it became known that in fact he had perpetrated the scientific fraud that Science Magazine called "one of the most audacious ever committed." He also embezzled something like $3 million in state funds and private donations, and landed more than a dozen women in the hospital after egg retrieval procedures. He is currently cloning dogs with BioArts, the company that Alexandra Stern mentioned in her post earlier this week.

Bernann McKinney (shown here with one of the clones of her dog Booger) is the first customer of the dog cloning company RNL Bio, which is competing with - and fighting about patent rights with - Hwang's firm. She is a former beauty pageant queen who kidnapped a Mormon missionary with whom was obsessed, holding him at a remote cottage in Britain as her sex slave for days. She fled to Canada disguised as a mime, and then went into hiding in the US disguised as a nun. The dog that she had RNL Bio clone was a pit bull named Booger; she originally obtained him by breaking into an animal shelter where he was scheduled to be euthanized after he had attacked some joggers. As of August 2008, she was wanted in Tennessee, where she is accused of convincing a 15-year-old to break into a house so that she could buy a prosthetic leg for her three-legged horse.

Taking stock of all this, it would be easy, as the Center for Genetics and Society's Jesse Reynolds put it, to "dismiss the cloning endeavor as nothing but a freak show." But, Reynolds continues, that's not a good idea:

Despite a broad consensus that human reproductive cloning should be banned (as it already is in about sixty countries), there's no shortage of bioethicists and pundits who fail to see anything wrong in the practice, and supposed cloning opponents who limit their concern to matters of safety.