A human baby has been born through cloning, the first on record, French scientist and member of the Raelian cult Brigitte Boisselier claimed.
The baby girl was born Thursday by caesarean section and the birth "went very well," Boisselier, president of the human cloning society Clonaid, said in a telephone interview with AFP.
Because the effort by the Raelians to achieve the first human birth by cloning was carried out in secrecy, it was not immediately possible to obtain any independent scientific confirmation that the baby was in fact a clone.
Boisselier, a 46-year-old French chemist who is president of the Clonaid human cloning society, declined to give further details of the birth, saying, "I prefer not to say more for now." She added that a full press conference was scheduled here on Friday.
Nor would she say whether the baby would be presented at the press conference.
"We are very happy. It's a triumph," Clonaid spokeswoman Nadine Gary said earlier.
If scientifically confirmed by independent sources, it would be the first human baby produced by the highly controversial technique -- and announced publicly.
It would also mark the beginning of a new era in human reproduction -- the first asexual birth, the first time a child was produced that was not the product of a genetic mix of mother and father, but the identical reproduction of one of its parents.
In this case, Boisselier told AFP on November 27, the baby born Thursday would be an identical twin of its mother, albeit many years apart in age.
She then said that an American couple was expecting the first birth by cloning, a baby girl, near the end of the year.
Cloning provides a genetic duplicate of another creature.
The predominant method around the world entails removing the nucleus, or core, from an egg and replacing it with DNA from a donor. This DNA "reprograms" the egg, transferring into it the entire genetic code of the donor.
Clonaid, which is based in Las Vegas, Nevada, was founded in 1997 by the Raelians, who claim 55,000 followers worldwide.
The Raelians believe that life on Earth was established by extra-terrestrials who arrived in flying saucers 25,000 years ago, and that humans themselves were created by cloning.
The movement's founder, Rael -- the former French journalist Claude Vorilhon -- lives in Quebec. He describes himself as a prophet and claims that cloning will enable humanity to attain eternal life.
William Muir, professor of genetics at Purdue University in Indiana, questioned how the cloned baby, assuming it survives infancy, would develop into "a normal person."
"They might have done a lot of experimentation before that," he said in a telephone interview Thursday night. "The end does not justify the means. There are things that are not ethical to do, like experimenting with humans."
Muir said the cloning process involves "reprogramming of the genetic code. But in cows, pigs and mice, we don't know if their behavior is normal because we cannot test their mental abilities."
The big problem, according to scientists, is to ensure that all the genes in this transferred code work properly, performing the dazzlingly complex business which is the making of tissue and the repairing of it.
Wide-ranging tests in lab animals, and the experience of cloned farm animals including Dolly the Sheep, have found that -- even though all the genes are there -- many of them do not appear to switch on and off as they should.
Malfunctioning genes can cause an embryo to become malformed, prompting the body to expel it in a miscarriage.
Many biotechnologists are repelled by the ethical dilemma posed by human cloning as well as the risk to the first cloned babies, and many governments have raced to pass laws that ban reproductive cloning.
Yet this has not prevented a race among scientific mavericks to become the first to clone a human.
US fertility specialist Panos Zavos told the US Congress in May that five groups of scientists were racing to produce the first cloned human baby. In late November, Italian gynecologist Severino Antinori said a woman carrying a cloned human embryo was expected to give birth in early January.
Last month, the United States pledged to work in good faith for a global ban on human cloning after delaying for a year United Nations consideration of a treaty it did not believe went far enough.