A bewildering fight for life // Calif. couple furious over missing embryos
Jonathan T. Lovitt ; Richard Price
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
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
-- 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
-- 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