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Media bungled clone claim coverage

/ Source: contributor

I do not believe chemist Brigitte Boisselier and her cloning company Clonaid, which is sponsored by the manifestly crazy cult known as the Raelians, have created a clone. I do believe that a number of negative ramifications have resulted since Boisselier appeared just after Christmas in a tacky Hollywood, Fla., motel room to announce to the world that the first cloned human had been born. And the blame for these unfortunate events must be laid squarely at the feet of the media.

As soon as I heard about the Raelians’ cloning claim, I knew it was nonsense. The group has no scientific or medical experience, published no articles or reports in any peer-reviewed journals related to cloning and produced absolutely no proof of their claim.

Cloning has barely worked in animal species — maybe 1 in 100 live animals have been born per attempt — and a number of animal species have proven impossible to clone at all, including dogs and all primates. Clonaid officials’ claims that the company has been successful in five of 10 attempts are simply incredible on their face.

And now Clonaid is beginning to waffle on whether there will be any DNA testing allowed on the alleged clone baby, thereby making its claim completely worthless.

What's the harm in a little fun?
Soon after the story broke, I began a week of appearances on television and radio, and gave a host of newspaper interviews, all in an effort to try to debunk Clonaid. As I did so, I became increasingly angry about the media coverage of this non-event.

Some might ask, “So what if media coverage was bad? What difference does it really make if these latest cloning claims are simply a cult’s way of raising money and recruiting new members? The cult members make for great television with their leader’s “Starfleet Command” uniform and Boisselier’s exotic appearance.

What is the problem with giving some air time to what at times is a vaguely amusing story about a UFO cult and its cloning fantasies?”

Unfortunately, when the media give voice to a disreputable cult in this way, great harm is done.

For starters, the cult is using the media both to raise money from vulnerable people and to recruit new followers. In addition, some anti-abortion advocates, including President Bush and key Republican leaders, are using the cult’s claims to advance their agenda to ban all types of cloning, regardless of whether it’s for reproductive purposes or vital medical research.

To top it off, fringe scientists have been able to enhance their status by beating up on one of their own.

And, at the end of the day, the public comes away from the Raelian cloning story terrified by advances in genetics, the very science that holds the key to solving some of the biggest challenges human beings will face in this century.

Public left confused and clueless
Despite 24-hour media attention to the story, the American people have been left confused, scared and clueless.

Most Americans now believe that human cloning either has been done or will be done very soon, whereas most experts believe the opposite.

One example of this kind of misleading reporting is William Saletan’s online article in Slate on Dec. 31. He writes: “Most scientists doubt Eve is a clone, but they agree on two things. First, the various groups that have been trying to clone a human will succeed pretty soon, if they haven’t already.”

The public also has been told that cloning devalues life, is linked to abortion and is a tool to raise the dead as well as to manufacture armies of clones. For an example, take a look at Cal Thomas’ article “Why Not Cloning?” published by Tribune Media Services on Jan. 1. It is sheer nonsense.

Americans were not being told that Boisselier, Clonaid’s chief scientist, is a chemist with no background in medicine or biology. She has never been published in a scientific journal related to cloning, given lectures on cloning or shown any expertise in cloning.

In addition, some of the so-called scientists used by the media — including CNN, MSNBC, Fox and The New York Times — to challenge Clonaid’s claims score nearly as high on the “fruitball-ometer” as Boisselier and Rael. They include the discredited Panos Zavos and the kooky Italian clone-scientist-wanna-be Severino Antinori.

Scientific standards ignored
The message the public receives from this indiscriminate coverage is that science has no standards. CNN aired Boisselier’s Dec. 27 “news conference” live. She produced no mother, no baby, no DNA test, no description of cloning methods and no independent corroboration. In short, no proof — no nothing.

There is no scientist who could get this kind of coverage with this kind of rambling drivel. But the Raelians did.

As soon as Clonaid said it had no proof to present, any serious media coverage of the story should have ended.

Also, the public has barely been told that Clonaid has a history of fraud. In 2001, it managed to scam Mark Hunt, a lawyer and former West Virginia state legislator whose 10-month-old son had died of heart disease. Hunt spent $200,000 on a project backed by Clonaid to bring his baby back. Ultimately, the Food and Drug Administration shut down the program, which clearly could not have cloned anything given that the expert involved was a graduate student with no background in cloning.

Policy ramifications
The American people are facing a real political choice about cloning. They must decide whether it should be used for stem cell research, or for making babies or people, or not at all. In light of the media coverage of the Raelians’ cloning fantasies, the public could not possibly understand that choice.

To further confuse the issue, the media consistently allow politicians to get away with fuzzing their view on research as opposed to reproductive cloning. When lawmakers say they are for a ban on cloning, any journalist worth his or her salt should be asking, “For research, too?” Most have not.

The media have shown themselves incapable of covering the key social and intellectual phenomena of the 21st century, namely the revolution in genetics and biology. This revolution is sweeping into medicine and will soon revolutionize our understanding of human nature and behavior. It will fundamentally alter the way we make plants and animals, may cause us to rethink how we reproduce and offers the prospect of improving or enhancing our genetic makeup.

But despite the enormous importance of these issues, most Americans now associate genetics with a man with a ponytail in a white outfit who thinks that he can live forever by downloading his memories into a cloned body.

We must learn from this fiasco.

The media simply have to do a better job in reporting on science and medicine. Public policy on cloning or other possibilities presented by our exploding knowledge of genetics cannot be based on the pronouncements of cults, kooks and con men.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.