The science news over the weekend has been dominated by one story. In a shambolic conference in Rome last Friday, Severino Antinori and his colleague Panayiotis Zavos told scientists and journalists of their intention to offer cloning to infertile couples some time in the next two years. Few medical and scientific peers are taking their claims seriously. But the pair seem defiant, saying they have the support of countless prospective patients.
At the conference, Antinori talked of a survey of 300 infertile couples which backs up his claims of significant patient interest in cloning. Offered the choice between donor insemination (DI) and cloning of the male partner, 70 percent of the couples surveyed said they would prefer cloning. This figure is unsurprising. When presented with two methods of having a child, one with genes from a stranger and one with genes from a member of the couple, most people would understandably prefer the latter. But one important factor is being left out of the equation: safety.
Donor insemination and cloning are incomparable in terms of safety. DI is a tried and tested, relatively non-invasive procedure with a good rate of success whilst cloning, according to current research in animals, is unsuccessful and has a high risk of abnormality or neonatal death in the clones. Despite some success in a range of animals such as cows, mice and of course sheep, animal cloning researchers cite cases of abnormally large offspring with heart, lung or immune system defects. And it works in less than two percent of cases.
Antinori and colleagues have talked of screening the cloned embryos for abnormalities before they are implanted. But there are currently no known methods for detecting the developmental abnormalities that are so prevalent in clones.
People who can't conceive naturally might not like the idea of having a child with genes from an anonymous donor, but they like much less the idea of stillborn or severely malformed babies. Faced with the current facts of reproductive cloning, donor insemination seems like a infinitely preferable option.