ROME, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Controversial Italian fertility expert Severino Antinori, who has made a name for himself by helping grandmothers give birth and working on a project designed to produce cloned babies, says he's putting his life on the line in the name of science.
Antinori, 57, went on a hunger strike Jan. 29 to protest what he says are steps the Italian government is taking to curb scientific research. According to his office, he is still refusing to eat and he won't do so until Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi agrees to meet with him and promise he will not stand in the way of scientific research.
"This is not a personal battle but a battle for researchers around the world," Antinori said when the strike began. "I may die doing this, but if I do I will have died for a good cause."
Berlusconi has so far refused to meet with Antinori, and a spokesman declined to discuss the issue when contacted by United Press International. But the jury is still out on whether or not the issues Antinori is championing are really science.
Antinori, an embryologist has succeeded in helping several post-menopausal women -- including one aged 62 -- give birth to healthy children in recent years. But according to many, his real talent lies in the field of self-promotion.
Antinori, who can be seen driving the streets of Rome in a cherry-red Ferrari and on television talk shows that usually focus on Milan runway models, stunned observers when he announced last April that he had helped three women become pregnant with the cloned offspring of a childless Arab sheik. He said the project was aimed in part at laying the groundwork for helping what he said were the world's 120 million sterile men have children, but he clearly reveled in the notoriety the claims brought him.
When the Canada-based Raelian sect announced that they had produced cloned babies in December, Antinori wrote them off as pretenders and said that the first "real clones" would be born in January.
With the expected birth month come and gone -- his office continues to insist the project is "advancing as planned" -- Antinori seems to be focusing his attention on the hunger strike he hopes will convince the government to back away from regulations designed to make cloning and related research illegal in Italy.
"The doctor feels very strongly that there should be a freedom of research in Italy," an employee of Antinori's Rome offices told UPI, asking not to be further identified. "This is an issue of the integrity of science."
To be sure, Antinori's brand of science is controversial in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy, where the Vatican officials have called for an outright ban on cloning and genetic research, and have so far convinced Italian lawmakers to take steps in that direction.
"It is amazing that someone like Severino Antinori even exists in a place like Italy, where the mindset is pointed so dramatically away from him," Giorgio Santi, an expert on ethics at Roma Tre University, told UPI. "But in his own way, he thrives here, he thrives on the problems and the attention they bring."