A bewildering fight for life // Calif. couple furious over missing embryos

  Jonathan T. Lovitt ; Richard Price


  USA Today


  Page 03A

  (Copyright 1995)


  LOS ANGELES - Kent Beasley had a nightmare last week, dreaming he was

  Rambo fighting through a jungle in search of lost children.


  "I had to rescue kids I didn't even know," says Beasley, 45.


  He didn't need an analyst to explain that one: He and his wife, Debra, 35, are

  among hundreds of couples caught up in perhaps the biggest mess in the history

  of human reproduction.


  They were patients of the Orange County-based Center for Reproductive Health,

  affiliated with the University of California at Irvine - one of several clinics

  accused of mishandling thousands of frozen embryos that patients left in their

  care. The university closed the clinic this year, touching off a legal, ethical and

  moral battle that will take years to resolve.


  "The betrayal that I feel I can't verbalize," says Debra Beasley, a registered

  nurse. Although most couples are keeping the issue private, the Beasleys are

  speaking out to warn other couples.


  Among accusations: Fertilized eggs from as many as 40 couples were implanted

  in other women. Other embryos were shipped off for "research" projects. Others

  were simply lost.


  The latest issue: A judge this month must decide the fate of about 1,900 embryos

  shipped from the clinic when the scandal broke. The embryos are in four

  canisters of liquid nitrogen - but the company holding them has no record of

  whom they belong to.


  The scandal brought investigations by at least six state, federal and local

  agencies; at least two lawsuits, with more expected; a state Senate inquiry; and a

  firestorm of demands for regulation of the industry.


  For the Beasleys and other couples, such lofty debate is secondary to the quest

  for their embryos.


  In 1991, the Beasleys left 11 embryos at the clinic. Two months ago, after

  learning that the university had shut down the clinic and was suing the doctors

  who ran it, they called to inquire and discovered that at least four embryos - the

  Beasleys' lawyer believes the number is higher - were missing.


  The doctors said the embryos went for research. But paperwork is missing, and

  doctors say they have no record of where the embryos went, or why.


  So the Beasleys live with an extraordinary uncertainty. They could have another

  biological child somewhere, a sibling to their three at home.


  Assuming the embryos did go for research, the Beasleys are tormented by the

  question of what research. According to testimony at a June hearing, one couple's

  embryos wound up at a University of Wisconsin zoology lab.


  The Beasleys don't know if they can save the remaining embryos. Their lawyer

  believes the embryos are among 1,900 at California Cryobank, which was not

  meant for storage and whose administrators want guarantees against legal action

  before giving them up.


  Cryobank's problem: The embryos were accepted without an inventory; the only

  way to identify them is by thawing, a process that could destroy 25% or more.

  Even then, sorting them out might require DNA analysis, a scientifically

  Herculean task that would take months and consume a portion, if not all, of the



  And if the Beasleys do get the right embryos back, they face another decision -

  whether to rush into a surgical attempt at pregnancy. As their lawyer, Walter

  Koontz, points out, "Once you thaw them, it's use them or lose them."


  But first they have to get them. The Beasleys, with two other couples, are suing

  the clinic's doctors and are fighting for a court order that would force an

  accounting and a return of all embryos. The case is scheduled for court Aug. 18.


  The issue is such a new phenomenon that few understand it, but the emotional

  impact lands somewhere between theft and kidnapping.


  Says Kent Beasley, "It's not like somebody came in your garage and took your

  lawnmower." Adds Debra, crying, "They're horrible images, the grief of not

  knowing, every day, every hour: Where did they go?"


  Debra Beasley says that when she called the clinic, the lead doctor - Ricardo

  Asch, developer of the clinic's surgical technique - snapped, "Why are you

  asking questions?"


  When she explained her concern, she says, he suggested she authorize donation

  of the embryos. She refused.


  She tried for four years before becoming pregnant with twins in 1991, and she

  wanted to save the other embryos for a possible next baby. The Beasleys have

  another child as well.


  Ethicists have expected something like this for years. While the business of

  tinkering with reproduction - which entails everything from fertility drugs to

  in-vitro fertilization - has exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry, experts say

  the law, ethics and oversight have trailed woefully.


  Given the enormous profits - the Center for Reproductive Health was taking in at

  least $10,000 a patient - and the freedom the industry has, ethical issues were

  inevitable, experts say.


  Alexander Capron of the University of Southern California believes this case

  may furnish the boost he's long sought.


  Capron, who directed the presidential commission that formulated policy on

  genetic research in the early 1980s, has argued the nation needs a similar

  commission on reproduction. "It's clear now that the time has come," he says.


  Meanwhile, the three doctors who ran the clinic, including Asch, continue

  private practice. Asch is "absolutely outraged by the allegations," says his

  lawyer, Ken Steelman. He says Asch blames the problems on clinic staff.


  Steelman says the fight over the 1,900 embryos is a waste, that any patient who

  wants embryos back can contact him. Cryobank's medical director, Cappy

  Rothman, has released embryos to 10 patients.


  But Koontz, the Beasleys' lawyer, wants that stopped until an independently

  supervised accounting is done.


  The Beasleys, though, say they won't be satisfied until they know what happened

  to all 11 embryos. `We're not going to stop until we find out what happened,"

  Debra Beasley says. "I'm not going to sit back."


  What's involved in fertility scandal


  -- Clinics involved: Center for Reproductive Health at the University of

  California-Irvine; a satellite clinic, Saddleback Hospital in Laguna Hills;

  AMI/Garden Grove Medical Center, where two center doctors had a clinic until

  1990; Assisted Reproductive Technologies in San Diego, where one doctor had a

  separate operation.


  -- The accusations: Drs. Ricardo Asch and Jose Balmaceda are accused of 10

  unauthorized transfers to other couples at Garden Grove. They and Dr. Sergio

  Stone are accused of 20 to 25 more at Irvine. In San Diego, authorities say Asch

  may have done up to 22 transfers.


  -- Pregnancies: It is not known how many resulted from unauthorized transfers.

  Garden Grove lists seven pregnancies out of 10 transfers. At San Diego, there

  may be one.


  -- Unauthorized research: Doctors concede embryos went to labs and clinics; no

  count is available.


  -- Drugs: To stimulate the harvest of eggs, women were given unapproved drugs

  from Argentina.


  -- Financial irregularities: Clinic employees said the doctors were paid in cash

  and split the money every week. The IRS has launched an investigation. The

  doctors reported $5 million in income between September 1991 and January


  PHOTO,color,Steven Lewis,AP; PHOTO,b/w,Steven Lewis; PHOTO,b/w,Bob

  Riha Jr.,Gamma-Liaison