A pioneering Italian fertility doctor accused of forcibly harvesting women's eggs has denounced the allegations against him as a witch hunt amid a widening investigation into the industry.
Severino Antinori, known in Italy as the "grandmothers' obstetrician", has been placed under house arrest and his medical licence suspended while he is investigated over the claims. Antinori is also accused of paying women up to €1000 ($1670) per egg, which is illegal under Italian fertility laws.
His arrest was triggered by a complaint by a 24-year-old Spanish woman who claimed her eggs were taken without her consent last month at the physician's Matris clinic in Milan.
According to Italian investigators the woman, who was working as a nurse at the clinic, claims in April she was forcibly immobilised and anaesthetised before her eggs were surgically harvested against her will.
She called emergency services from a clinic telephone, leading to the investigation. She claims she believed she was being treated for an ovarian cyst.
However, one of Antinori's lawyers, Tommaso Pietrocarlo, said that the woman signed a consent form for egg donation a month before the surgery after a "consultation with a psychologist" who said she was conscious of the choice.
"This is a persecution. I never forced anyone to do anything," Antinori said. "Why would I have to steal eggs? I'm innocent, and always only did good."
Antinori says he has been harassed by authorities in Italy since the 1970s for his pioneering yet controversial work in fertility treatments.
He shot to fame in 1994 after giving fertility treatment to a 63-year-old Italian woman, which made her become the oldest woman to give birth at the time.
Prosecutors have suspended Antinori's licence to practise for one year as the investigation into charges of aggravated robbery and causing personal injury continues.
At least a dozen women are being questioned about the circumstances surrounding their egg donations.
Last year, Italy lifted a 2004 ban on the use of donated eggs and sperm, legalising the fertility treatment procedure for heterosexual married couples.
Prosecutors are investigating whether Antinori was paying donors cash gifts on the side.
In an interview with La Repubblica newspaper, one donor said Antinori promised €1000 per egg and €500 for every friend brought in.