March 5, 2002
By AARON ZITNER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
VALCOURT, Canada -- In the course of 29 years, Claude Vorilhon built a small yet international religious group by preaching that scientists from another planet created all life on Earth. But in 1998, Vorilhon had an especially big pronouncement for his 5,000 or so followers: The creators would soon board their flying saucers and return. It was time to prepare.
And so Vorilhon called for beautiful young women in his group to step forward as hostesses for the arriving aliens. Members of the elite Order of the Angels were to devote themselves fully--and in some cases sexually--to the creators and their prophet on Earth, Vorilhon. According to former members, well more than 100 women volunteered.
It is an unusual tale, but the strangest part may be this: Today, Vorilhon has won a prominent role in one of the most sober policy decisions before Congress--whether to outlaw human cloning, even as a research tool that might help cure disease. At the direction of the aliens, Vorilhon says, his group is working to create the world's first cloned child. Some of the Angels have agreed to act as the egg donors and surrogate mothers that the process requires.
Cloning "is the key to eternal life; that's the goal," Vorilhon said at his Quebec headquarters, called UFOland, which features a large model of a UFO he says he boarded in 1973 to meet an alien scientist. "Everyone who enjoys life would like to live forever. Don't you?"
Now, with Congress engaged in an emotional battle over whether to ban human cloning, lawmakers are also debating whether to take the French-born religious leader seriously. Is he truly a rogue cloner, an example of why regulation might be needed? Or is he merely a charlatan, riding the public's unease over cloning to gain publicity for his religion?
It is impossible to determine, yet lawmakers have made Vorilhon part of their debate. And that has some medical researchers hugely frustrated. They say Vorilhon, who calls himself the Prophet Rael and testified before Congress last year in a futuristic white jumpsuit, has made cloning look unduly creepy. His cloning claims, they say, are pushing lawmakers to ban the technique not only as a way to produce children, but as a potential method for growing new cells for Alzheimer's patients, heart attack victims and other people whose own tissues have gone awry.
"For those of us who want a reasoned debate, it's been a disaster to have him come out of the woodwork," complained Michael West, chief executive of Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a Massachusetts company that aims to create cloned human embryos for disease research. "This is absurd. It's a circus. Why is Congress debating this by talking to someone who says he flies around in flying saucers?"
And yet, some biologists say that if it is possible to create a baby through cloning, Vorilhon and his Raelian Movement might well be the first to do it.
Scientists have successfully cloned cows, pigs and several other species, most recently cats. But each birth has followed scores of failed or aborted pregnancies, and cloned offspring are often unhealthy. Given the risks, what woman would help create or carry a cloned embryo?
It would take someone with a strong commitment--maybe the commitment of an Angel. "This cadre of women gives them an advantage over everyone else in contention," said Dr. Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University. "For anyone to be successful, it will take a lot of eggs, a lot of wombs, and a lot of guts now. The Raelians seem to have a hold on all three."
For some lawmakers, that means no one should be permitted to produce a cloned embryo for any purpose, whether for reproduction or medical research. "Once you have these embryos around, and if groups like the Raelians had access, I don't think it would be difficult for them to succeed," said Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a physician. The House has already voted to bar the creation of cloned human embryos for any purpose, and a Senate vote is expected within weeks. President Bush supports the House bill.
Who is Claude Vorilhon, and what is his true goal? A close look at the Raelians shows a long history of publicity stunts, and the cloning effort may be one more. No cloning expert has ever publicly acknowledged working with them.
On the other hand, the Raelians did open a secret laboratory in West Virginia, which they closed last year after the location was discovered. Last month, Vorilhon claimed he had begun work at a new lab to clone a terminally ill man, who has no family and wants to be "reborn like a blank tape."
And some people who know the Raelians intimately say they are very committed to their cause.
"These women, they are not told that this is dangerous," said Dominique Saint-Hilaire, a 14-year Raelian from Bordeaux, France, until she quit in 2000. "They are acting for the Great Cause. They are hoping to be the first mother of a clone. They want to be the most important Raelian on the planet."
Every summer, Vorilhon's followers drive 90 minutes northwest of Montreal, past cows and cornfields, tractors and silos. In the small farming community of Valcourt, they gather at an odd, tear-shaped building for two weeks of meetings and meditation.
This is UFOland, part office complex, part museum of the Raelian religion. The tourists who trickle in are guided through Vorilhon's life and vision--the story of how, in 1973, he was hiking in the French woods when a UFO landed, and an alien explained to him the true origins of mankind.
Vorilhon was 27, the editor of a small auto racing magazine. He had also achieved minor success as a singer. The alien gave him a new mission: to pave the way for a second coming of the creators from space.
Vorilhon's task was to teach people to accept the aliens as their true fathers. He was also to preach the alien philosophy: peace, tolerance, a love of science and sexual freedom.
"When I first heard all this, it was like a philosophical orgasm," said Michel Beluet, the UFOland director and a Raelian since 1976. "You can say we're crazy and on an acid trip, but some people vibrate to it, and they join."
Today, the Raelians claim 55,000 members in 84 countries, though Vorilhon says only 10% are active. Others put the membership at about 3,000, with the biggest groups in French-speaking Europe and Canada.
Building a religion takes skill and sensitivity. "The leader of a new religion has to make followers feel special, like they're the chosen ones," said Susan Palmer, a Montreal sociologist and author of "Alien Apocalypse," a forthcoming book about the Raelians. "Otherwise there's no point in being there, and people drift away."
To keep members engaged, Vorilhon, now 55, has long courted the press. Media attention makes the Raelians feel important, Palmer said. It also allows them to spread their message about the alien creators.
The media, in turn, have found the Raelian talk of sex, science and UFOs to be irresistible. To protest a 1992 decision barring condom machines at certain Quebec high schools, Raelians passed out condoms from a van adorned with large spaceships. They bought billboard space in Toronto to welcome the extraterrestrials. When stories on their activities appear in print, the Raelians take it as confirmation that the world is coming to understand their religion and their work is having an effect.
Vorilhon uses another technique to hold the interest of his followers, say people who study the group. On regular occasions, he makes apocalyptic pronouncements, asserting that a world-shattering event is imminent and that only Raelians are in the know.
Most of his statements have been sufficiently vague or aimed at future events so that his credibility does not come under direct challenge.
In 1998, for example, Vorilhon announced that he had received a telepathic message from the aliens with dramatic news: The creators would soon return.
"Which Christian would not like to serve Jesus personally?" the aliens asked, according to a purported transcript. "Which Jew, Moses? . . . That's why, for those who would like to, we ask our last prophet Rael to found a religious order."
Any pious woman could join the new Order of the Angels and help prepare for the alien arrival. But the creators expressed a special fondness for beautiful women. Moreover, some women could join an elect group within the Angels by agreeing to sleep only with the aliens and their prophets, including Vorilhon.
In an interview at UFOland, Vorilhon said the Angels came under no pressure to have sexual relations with him. His group believes in sexual freedom, not coercion, he said.
But Angels must be highly committed--willing even to sacrifice their lives. "When people are ready to die to protect somebody they love from aggression, I think it's beautiful," he said.
Now the devoted Angels, the apocalyptic announcements and the drive for media attention have become intertwined with cloning.
After Dolly the sheep was born in 1996, Vorilhon quickly capitalized on the media frenzy. He said he had created a company, Clonaid, that would use cloning to help any gay or infertile couple have children, for a $200,000 fee.
Today, however, Vorilhon says that Clonaid was little more than a post office box in the Bahamas. "For a minimal investment, it got us media coverage worth more than $15 million," he wrote last year in a book, "Yes to Human Cloning." "I am still laughing."
Vorilhon says things turned more serious in the summer of 2000, when a follower named Brigitte Boisselier told him that she had found an American investor willing to put up $500,000 to clone his 10-month-old son, who had died during heart surgery.
Clonaid announced its new cloning effort at a Montreal news conference. Boisselier, who holds two doctorates in chemistry, became the company's scientific director.
Clonaid refused to say where the cloning would take place, or to name any scientists on its team. But as a sign of its credibility, it introduced several of the 50 Raelian women who had agreed to act as egg donors and surrogate mothers. Most but not all of them are Angels, Vorilhon said.
Florence Laudoyer, one of the volunteers, said she saw no health risk to carrying a cloned child. "The surrogate mother will be followed more than any other pregnant woman on Earth," she said in an interview at UFOland. "If there is any problem, there will be an abortion at an early stage. So there is nothing to fear."
The Clonaid announcement had an important effect within the Raelian Movement, said Saint-Hilaire, the former member from France.
"Cloning came just in time, because a lot of people had started getting bored and quitting," she said. "It generates a lot of excitement."
In Washington, Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), watched the media coverage of Clonaid. As chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, he was planning a hearing on human cloning, with an eye toward proposing a ban on cloning to produce children.
Greenwood invited the Raelians to testify last spring, and Vorilhon appeared in his white jumpsuit, his hair tied atop his head in a knot. He told the lawmakers that people one day would clone themselves and then download their personalities into the clones, achieving a kind of eternal life.
The testimony, Greenwood later said, convinced lawmakers that "even kooks may have the capacity to make human beings through cloning, and we better get serious about legislating here."
When the House voted last summer, it chose to bar human cloning for reproduction and research. That would stop scientists from trying to produce cloned human embryos for their stem cells, which in turn might be grown into replacement tissues for patients with a variety of ailments. Some people said Vorilhon was a big factor in the vote. "The House invited Rael down to show that cloning was kooky and dangerous and imminent, then they acted in terror at the image they created," said Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist. "And Rael allowed himself to become the poster boy for the anti-cloning forces in order to gain publicity."
Vorilhon agreed he was used by cloning opponents. "But, we are winners in any case, even if cloning is banned," he said. "We are winners because our organization had worldwide media coverage."
Caplan isn't laughing. "If I was a patient," he said, "I'd be angry at the media and at the politicians."
One night in April, Greg Casto woke at 4 a.m. and had trouble returning to sleep. He flipped on CNN, and there was Boisselier, talking about human cloning.
Casto had seen the woman before--right there in the small city of Nitro, W.Va., at the community center, which Casto manages.
Casto realized he knew something that nobody else knew: The Raelians really did have a cloning lab. A lawyer, Mark Hunt, had rented a room at the center and had been stocking it with lab equipment. He had to be the Raelians' secret financier.
Hunt had lost his 10-month-old son during heart surgery two years earlier. "What he said was that he wanted to study DNA to cure disease and get patents," Casto recalled.
When Casto realized Hunt's real intent, he called the authorities, and Hunt was asked to leave.
Even though the Raelians had set up a lab, there were signs that it was no more a real attempt at cloning than was Vorilhon's post office box in the Bahamas.
There was little equipment, Casto said, and there was little activity. "It was very, very minimal," he said. "There was nothing going on in there."
Hunt eventually broke with the Raelians, saying Boisselier seemed more interested in publicity for the religion than in cloning.
Hunt declined interview requests for this story, but he explained his involvement to his hometown newspaper and to ABC television. He said he had hoped, through cloning, to reclaim something of his son. But Boisselier, he complained, had become a "press hog."
Today, Vorilhon says he has a team working to clone the terminally ill man, whom he will not name, at a secret location outside the United States. It is impossible to verify his claim.
In the Senate, there is widespread support for outlawing cloning to produce children. But senators are divided over whether to join the House in barring it in disease research. A vote could come as soon as this month.
Vorilhon claims that 3,000 people have signed up for Clonaid's service, and that the Americans among them would file a lawsuit if Congress bars cloning. Clonaid wants to operate in the United States, "which is really the only country in the world where individual freedom is guaranteed by your wonderful Constitution," he said.
He predicted the Supreme Court would strike down any cloning ban and rule that Clonaid's clients have a right to reproduce as they choose.
Lawmakers are still unsure what to
make of the Raelians. "If you want me to put my nickel on the table, I
think they're serious," said Weldon, the lawmaker and physician. "But if
you came back in two years and said they're a hoax, I wouldn't be surprised."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times