It is either a profound development in biotechnology or - as many suspect - the new century's biggest scientific hoax yet.
Clonaid, a Bahamas-based company owned by a religious sect called the Raelians, is claiming that two babies produced by cloning have been born - the latest just this Friday. The company says it expects three more cloned babies to be delivered this month.
Regardless of the truth of Clonaid's claims, however, the announcements are expected to trigger renewed efforts from the United Nations to the United States Congress to ban cloning.
Where supporters see the practice as new way to have children, the concept of human cloning jars with many people's religious beliefs. Even the few scientists who are not morally opposed to reproductive cloning favor going slowly until questions of safety are addressed.
Since 1998, at least 33 countries, including 19 European nations, have banned cloning.
At the UN, talks are continuing over drafts of an international convention that would ban reproductive cloning of human beings. Later this year, Canada is expected to pass a cloning ban.
And in the US, lawmakers in the House and Senate are expected to reintroduce measures first proposed last year. Apart from the moral revulsion many feel about cloning human beings, cloning experiments on animals show that the procedure is fraught with risk for the mother as well as the offspring.
"This will catalyze the congressional debate," says Michael Werner, vice president for bioethics at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, of the Clonaid announcements.
The company's claims have met with moral indignation from many religious leaders, scientists, and bioethicists. Biologists outside the company - including Clonaid competitor Severino Antinori, an Italian fertility doctor - have expressed deep skepticism about the veracity of the claims. Dr. Antinori last year indicated that his efforts to clone humans to help infertile couples were expected to result in several births this month.
Efforts to verify Clonaid's claims have foundered since the company's Dec. 27 press conference to announce that the world's first clone had been born to an American. By the middle of last week, the firm had backtracked on testing. It cited the parents' desire to retain their privacy after a Florida lawyer petitioned the state's supreme court to appoint a legal guardian for the baby girl. The identities and locations of the second child, born to a Dutch mother, are also a secret.
Yet researchers say tests to verify the genetic similarities between the baby and the source of its genetic material could easily be conducted in ways that safeguard privacy.
"All you need is the same genetic tests used in courtrooms, and these can be done in an afternoon," says Kevin Eggan, a molecular geneticist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.
He and others say that Clonaid's extraordinary claims of cloning humans require extraordinary proof.
Founded by a sect that believes extraterrestrials created life on Earth, Clonaid claims it has a roster of 2,000 people willing to pay $200,000 each to clone themselves or a loved one - a lucrative $400 million market if their numbers are correct.
Some analysts suspect that Clonaid is using its assertions as marketing ploys. Clonaid "is winning the race for announcements in the media," observes Gregory Stock, director of the program on medicine, technology, and science at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Last year, lawmakers in the House and Senate grappled with legislation that would ban cloning to various degrees, but to little effect.
Congress's inability to pass a bill could mirror an ambivalence in the public at large over cloning. In public-opinion surveys taken during the past few years, the public opposes reproductive cloning by large majorities, notes Lois Timms-Ferrara of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn.
The data show that religious or moral convictions are the driver for the vast majority of those who opposed reproductive cloning.
Yet the gap between opponents and supporters of cloning narrows significantly when the questions involve the use of cloned human embryos for research into new medical therapies.
And "Americans seem to stop short of supporting laws prohibiting cloning," she continues, noting that by some surveys, up to 25 percent of the public remains undecided, while opponents and advocates of a ban split fairly evenly.
Some suggest combining a ban on reproductive cloning with a moratorium on research cloning. That proposal irks some.
"As far as I'm concerned, there's no difference between a moratorium and a ban, says Alta Charo, a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There's no reason to believe that such a moratorium would ever be lifted."
Such a move would stifle potentially valuable medical research, she says.
Already, biotech industry officials say, the US is quickly losing ground to countries such as Britain and China, which have fewer qualms about cloning embryos for stem-cell research.
"The challenge to members of Congress is to explain why, if they are unable to get a ban passed, they are not willing to settle for at least a ban on reproductive cloning, with criminal penalties," Dr. Charo continues. Research cloning would then be dealt with in a separate bill.