Law Prof and Novelist Lori Andrews Untangles Today’s Strangest Biotech Cases

CLONE RANGER: Meet the woman who reigns as the nation’s foremost legal authority on the most contentious technological and bioethical issues of our time

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Law professor and novelist Lori Andrews
“She’s truly brilliant,” says a colleague. “Literally 20 years ago she was anticipating ethical problems that would be coming in the future, and they would all come to pass.” Below: Andrews’s literary efforts range from legal tomes to pulp fiction.

She was cooking dinner when she got the call about the dead guy who had willed that his noggin be severed, frozen, and later attached to a live body. “What are the legal rights of a severed head?” the scientist caller asked. “Should it receive a portion of the estate?”

Then there was the senator who wanted to ban genetic engineering by making it a crime to put DNA of any form into a human egg. She had to call back to inform him that he would be outlawing the making of all babies.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because sperm puts DNA into an egg.”

And there were others: the mad millionaire who wanted to launch a eugenics program; the family desperate to test the blood-soaked cloak worn by Mary Todd Lincoln the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination; the Dubai officials who sought ethical advice on cloning members of the male population (if a man clones himself, would he be the clone’s father or brother?).

But the topper for Lori Andrews, the Downers Grove native who grew up to become one of the world’s foremost legal authorities on the most contentious technological and bioethical issues of our time, came with a 1998 visit to the UFO Café in UFOland, a theme park for the alien-worshiping Canadian cult known as the Raelians (Ray-AY-lee-ans).

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The leader, Rael (a former sports-car journalist who changed his name from Claude Vorilhon after, he says, aliens abducted him in 1973), and his science director, Brigitte Bosselier, had just announced their intention to clone humans—and animals—at $200,000 a pop for anyone interested in replacing a loved one or a pet.

Andrews wangled an invitation to the compound at a remote farming village in Quebec to question the alien worshipers about the ethical subtleties of their clone-on-demand plan. Right away she was wary. “They told me, ‘We will have our second in command pick you up at the airport and drive two hours to an undisclosed location,’” Andrews recalls. “It felt a little dicey.”

At the UFO Café, after being escorted past a full-size silver-gray model of an alien spaceship and a glass case filled with UFO souvenirs (Japanese baby socks decorated with flying saucers, alien key rings), Andrews was led to a table spread with a plastic tablecloth. Her hosts’ apparel set the tone: Rael wore a white Elvis jumpsuit; Bosselier was dressed as Cleopatra.

Rael explained that ultimately he wanted people to be able to clone themselves and implant their memories in their new bodies—in short, to become immortal. “I see,” Andrews said.

And that’s when the bioethics issue came up. Rael continued, “Stupid people won’t be cloned. Imagine how bad it would be to be stupid for eternity.”

* * *

Thirteen years later, Rael’s cloning program lies fizzled on the launch pad, the frozen head remains severed (without, alas, any inheritance), and making babies is still very much legal.

Meanwhile, Andrews’s renown as a legal “fixer”—on ethical matters both weird and weighty—has grown into an empire of influence spanning science, the law, and, in recent years, the pulp forensic fiction market in the form of her literary creation Alexandra Blake.

When the White House needed advice after the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Andrews got the call. When the federal government undertook the $3 billion Human Genome Project, Andrews was tapped to chair an advisory committee.

The capstone of her career, however, came last year with a victory in one of the thorniest, most controversial biotechnical issues in decades. For years, many researchers have argued that they should be able to patent genes, such as the breast cancer gene. That means, among other wide-reaching implications, that researchers and biotech companies can charge a royalty fee every time other scientists want to do research into the disease or test for the gene’s presence.

The issue found expression ten years ago in the case of the Greenbergs, a suburban Homewood family who had helped a doctor uncover the gene for Canavan disease (an inherited brain disorder) by providing samples of blood, urine, and tissue from two of their babies who had the condition. Four years after discovering the gene in 1993, the doctor and the hospital started enforcing the patent, reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties.

The Greenbergs sued, saying the Canavan gene sequence should be in the public domain. Andrews, who represented the family, also argued that the doctor and the hospital had violated the donors’ right to informed consent by not disclosing the intent to patent the gene. The hospital argued then—and biotech companies have argued since—that such patents provide the profits that entice and pay for basic scientific research. Andrews argued that the law does not permit the patenting of products of nature because you can’t invent something that already exists. (See Owning a Piece of Jonathan)

In the Greenberg case, she only won a settlement. But last spring, in a case against a biotech firm called Myriad Genetics, a federal court weighed in. Largely as a result of Andrews’s work, a U.S. district court in New York effectively banned gene patenting, echoing her claim that genetic material couldn’t be patented.

The ruling has been appealed. But no matter the outcome, the case is emblematic of the punch Andrews packs and the inexhaustible zeal she brings to a career defined by issues as fascinating as they are consequential.

“She is a dynamo,” says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based International Center for Technology Assessment and a regular foe of Andrews on issues such as whether it’s OK to sell body parts for profit. “I’ve been praised for being a Renaissance man and being energetic, but I have to say, I don’t think I’ve met many people who can compete with Lori for sheer energy level. Whenever we have lunch, she’s always writing mystery novels and doing 20 other things.”

As Andrews ticks off her various projects and job titles, the description seems literally to be true. Her day job is professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. She’s also director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago-Kent’s parent school.

In her spare time, she’s a consultant for groups ranging from the World Health Organization to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as for several foreign nations, the emirate of Dubai, and the French National Assembly. She’s a frequent guest on television shows from 60 Minutes and Nightline to Oprah, and for a while she was a consultant for Just Cause, a TV legal drama starring Richard Thomas of The Waltons fame—and even tried her hand at writing an episode.

She’s completed the third of her Alexandra Blake novels—this after authoring ten nonfiction books on ethical issues related to genetics and technology—and has a draft for a new thriller featuring a female protagonist who bears a not-so-coincidental resemblance to Andrews herself. (“She lives in Chicago—Lincoln Park, no less—unlike Alex Blake, who lives in D.C.,” says Andrews, who lives near Lincoln Park Zoo.)

Most recently, she’s taken part in cases involving alleged discrimination against people with diabetes and has also joined a 40-professor consortium examining ethical issues around social networks such as Facebook—with a book, naturally, planned on the topic. Oh, and she’s in talks with the television writer and producer Warren Light (Law and Order: Criminal Intent, In Treatment) about a proposed television drama whose lead character will be based on her.

On a late-fall morning, Andrews doesn’t look superhuman as she talks about her latest inhuman load of projects, meetings, speeches, book deals, Hollywood overtures, and travel. A petite woman with a blond bob fringed with a demure curtain of bangs, she wears a tasteful business suit and a pair of heels that she quietly slipped from a tote bag—the same bag in which she stashes the flats that are essential gear for a woman known to shun cabs for a crosstown trek. (“We once walked from the top of the Upper East Side all the way down to the ACLU [in Lower Manhattan],” recalls Debra Greenfield, a Los Angeles lawyer with UCLA’s Center for Society and Genetics. “She was just walking and talking. The energy was incredible.”) Andrews is a fast talker—ideas, opinions, observations, and legal references crash in waves, which is not surprising given the varied shores over which her intellect flows.

“She’s just such an amazing force of nature in terms of energy and brainpower,” says Greenfield.

“It’s hard not to gush when you talk about Lori,” adds a colleague, Ed Kraus, associate professor of clinical law at Chicago-Kent. “Hanging with law professors and lawyers, there are a lot of smart people, but she’s truly brilliant. Literally 20 years ago she was anticipating and talking about conundrums and ethical problems that would be coming in the future, and they would all come to pass.”

Andrews, 58, has been single since she and her husband were amicably divorced in 1994. Her son, Christopher, seems to be following his mother’s superachiever trajectory. Since graduating from Yale with honors last May, Andrews says, he’s worked as a cinematographer, shooting a feature film, two music videos, and a public service announcement about drinking. He’s currently on the set of a Martin Sheen/ Stephen Rea film in Ireland, learning from a European cinematographer he admires.

* * *

Andrews’s interest in the law had early roots. At age seven, when her Ken doll went bald, she did what any enterprising schoolgirl destined for Yale Law School would do: “I wrote to Mattel,” she says. “I got action, too.” (Mattel sent a new doll’s head.)

Born to a Maywood pharmacist and a stay-at-home mom, Andrews showed hints of her consuming drive at a young age. “When I was in fourth grade in my public school, a teacher decided to put together a class of motivated kids from fourth through eighth grades,” she recalls. “We really took advantage of the city. We would go to things like puppet opera. I think that class really influenced me.”

After graduating as a straight-A student from Downers Grove South High School, she won entry to Yale, where she graduated summa cum laude, paying her way in part by rewriting her class papers for newspapers and magazines. She went on to Yale Law School and, in a prescient twist, took her bar exam on July 25, 1978, the day Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born.

Her interest in science and ethics arose from a turning-point moment during her undergraduate years. A young relative of Andrews (out of concern for privacy, she didn’t want to be more specific) succumbed to a mysterious paralysis and was hospitalized for a lengthy period of time. While visiting, Andrews was appalled by how the child was treated in the hospital and by the manner of the doctors, who sometimes seemed more interested in the latest technological toy than in the patient. “It made me start writing in college about the impact of the dehumanization in hospitals,” she says.

It also made her want to know more about the explosion in new medical technologies—not just the cool things they could do, but the psychological, social, and ethical implications of advances such as genetic testing, human cloning, and nanotechnologies. She didn’t want to be a scientist. She wanted to apply her legal knowledge to science in a way that could help people understand—and therefore make better-informed decisions about—new, often controversial discoveries.

Doing so, however, required more than book learning, she reasoned. To find out the ways these technologies were affecting real people, she felt she needed to see for herself, to do field research.

She had no idea what she was letting herself in for.

 

Photograph: Ryan Robinson
Assistants: Brian Guido and Sarah Claxton  Hair and Makeup: Traci Fine

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