The Raelian religious sect may or may not have produced a cloned human baby.
But its unproven claim to have done so is producing its own bumper crop of offspring. At least 48 bills to ban or to regulate human cloning have been introduced in state legislatures and Congress since the Raelians' announcement in late December. Only one cloning bill, a ban enacted by the Iowa Legislature, was approved earlier in 2002, before the Raelians' claim. None of this year's proposals has become law.
Some of the new proposals to limit or ban cloning were in the works before the cloning claim by the Raelians, who believe that human life was created by space aliens. But legislators say anxiety over the Raelians' claim helped propel the wave of proposals.
''Cloning seemed like science fiction, until one day there it was on the news,'' says T.R. Rowe, a Republican in the Connecticut House of Representatives who has introduced a bill that would ban all cloning. ''Just like that, it has become part of the public debate.''
In cloning, scientists mimic reproduction by inserting DNA from the nucleus of an adult cell into an egg cell whose nucleus has been removed. The resulting embryo is a genetic copy of the adult from whom the nucleus was drawn.
Scientists have produced cloned sheep and cats but, despite the Raelians' claims, no known humans. Some legislators say the cell-transfer technique used to create a cloned embryo should be banned before that can happen. Others would permit it as long as the clones produced were used for research and not to produce babies.
Because of that division, getting cloning bans passed has proven difficult. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill banning the cloning technique in 2001. But such a plan stalled in the Senate last year, after biotech industry lobbyists, disease sufferers and others who favor preserving research cloning weighed in.
Six states have produced cloning regulations since 1997, when Scottish researchers announced the birth of Dolly, the first sheep cloned from an adult cell. (Dolly, suffering from lung disease, was euthanized this month.) Michigan and Iowa ban all cloning, and California, Louisiana, Virginia and Rhode Island ban cloning aimed at producing a child, according the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The U.S. House is scheduled to vote Thursday on another full cloning ban. Its prospects for clearing the Senate remain cloudy. If it passed, it likely would supersede the state laws already in place.
A hearing this month in Indiana's House of Representatives was typical of the recent debate. Advocates of a cloning ban argued that research cloning is akin to abortion because the clone is destroyed in the process. They argued that it is wrong to create human life as a commodity, even for well-intentioned research. And they said permitting research cloning would lead to baby cloning by creating a pool of cloned embryos that rogue scientists could tap.
Proponents of research cloning argued that it is humanitarian and that baby cloning can be prevented by strict controls and criminal penalties. Academics and biotechnology industries in Indiana would move elsewhere if the state proved unfriendly to research such as cloning, proponents argued. Echoing scientists' claims, a multiple sclerosis sufferer said that cloning research offered hope for a cure.
''The (committee) chairman asked me if we couldn't get together on a compromise of some sort,'' says Rep. Peggy Welch, a Bloomington Democrat who has proposed banning all forms of cloning. ''Ordinarily, I'd jump at the chance, but not with cloning. On an issue as fundamental as this, there just may not be any room to compromise.''