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'Granny mothers' pioneer provokes mixed reactions: Liz Hunt on the work of a controversial scientist who is revered by many women

DR SEVERINO ANTINORI is a man who provokes strong feelings. To the older women who flock to his clinic in Rome from all over the world, he is a god-like figure who can make them into mothers long after their bodies have failed them.

To fellow scientists he is a maverick, a pioneer of fertility treatment for post-menopausal women which some colleagues feel leaves ethical considerations unresolved, along with questions about the long-term physical and emotional well-being of the women and children.

Dr Antinori has been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for his 'horrifying' work in 'pre-fabricating orphans'.

But Dr Antinori, a flamboyant and volatile figure, denies that he has done anything wrong in creating le mamme-nonne or 'granny mummies'.

Earlier this year, he told the Independent on Sunday: 'Every woman has the right to have a child. These women come to me when they have nowhere else to go, and I help where I can.'

Dr Antinori went on: 'Of course, there are ethical issues to be discussed. And they should be discussed, freely and openly. But who says it's not right for a woman to have a child at 55?

'A man can have a child at that age and everyone says: 'Isn't he clever.' But those same people say that a woman of 55 is a dish rag, good for throwing out on the dung heap. It's a disgrace.'

Dr Antinori says that, since 1991, 45 babies have been born to women in their fifties and early sixties.

Now 49, he began his career as a veterinary scientist specialising in embryology research. He went on to study gynaecology and obstetrics and became a specialist in fertility treatment, working in Venice, then Rome at the Istituto Materno Regina Elena, before setting up the Raprui clinic. He was aided by Simon Fishel, a British scientist and now reader in fertility at Nottingham University. That relationship ended in 1990 when Dr Fishel resigned amid acrimony and legal wrangling.

The rules on fertility treatment are less stringent in Italy than in many other European countries, and Dr Antinori was able to try out treatments at his clinic that other scientists were wary of, or prevented from attempting. And he has not been afraid of the publicity they generated.

In addition to making post- menopausal women into mothers, Dr Antinori has spoken openly of his success with other controversial treatments.

In 1988 he implanted a young woman with an egg donated by her mother and fertilised by her mother's boyfriend.

In 1992, a 61-year-old widow gave birth to a child after an egg was fertilised with her husband's sperm which, it was claimed, had been frozen before his death seven years earlier. Last year, Dr Antinori told reporters that he had been asked if he would treat Jane Fonda, 55, and newly-married to Ted Turner, chairman of Cable News Network. Both denied the claim.

Fertility treatment is a lucrative business with an estimated 30,000 women world-wide undergoing treatment at any one time at a cost of about pounds 230m a year. The Raprui clinic made pounds 400,000 profit last year and the latest publicity is unlikely to harm future profits or damage Dr Antinori's reputation among older women who are desperate for a child.

Le mamme-nonne are probably here to stay.

(Photograph omitted)