An Italian interior minister says surrogate parents should be treated like sex offenders and sent to prison.

Angelino Alfano claims surrogacy is “the most vile, illegal trade that man has invented.”

His opposition to surrogacy is viewed as part of a wider campaign by the minister, who is openly against equal rights for same-sex couples in Italy.

Alfano is part of the New Centre Right party (NCD) – a junior partner in the ruling coalition – who claim surrogacy and adoption is destroying the “sanctity of family.”

“Stepchild [adoption] really risks bringing the country closer to wombs-for-rent, towards the most vile, illegal trade that man has invented,” he told Italy’s Avvenire newspaper.

“We want wombs-for-rent to become a universal crime, which is punished with a jail term. Just as happens for sex crimes.”

Surrogacy is currently illegal in Italy – punishable by fines and up to two years in prison.

However, Alfano wants the crime to be classed as a sex offence – meaning it would carry much harsher punishments.

A debate on same-sex civil unions began last October, after the European Court of Human Rights criticised Italy for not providing legal recognition for gay couples.

The Court ruled that Italy should introduce legislation similar to that of civil unions, in order to protect the rights of same-sex couples.

The proposed law would offer some, but not all, of the benefits of marriage.

Included in the law would be partial pension rights, automatic inheritance and would enable same-sex partners to adopt each other’s children, if the child only has one legal parent

Italy remains the only major country in Western Europe which does not have legal protections for cohabiting same-sex couples, or same-sex marriage.