Reproductive clinic, doctors ran amok, ex-employees claim
Jonathan T. Lovitt ; Richard Price
SACRAMENTO - Former employees of an Orange County fertility clinic
Wednesday told of a medical chamber of horrors - cash-hungry doctors using
stolen embryos, unapproved drugs and dangerous shortcuts to impregnate
Marilyn Killane and Debra Krahel told a state Senate committee the practices at
the now-closed Center for Reproductive Health - affiliated with the University of
California-Irvine - dated to at least 1992.
"It's biomedical rape that's gone on," said Krahel, who was the center's senior
associate director until placed on administrative leave last July for registering her
Added Killane, center director until she also was put on leave in September, "I've
worked in the medical field for 25 years, and I've never seen a place like this."
They joined with a third whistle-blower to alert the university. Initially punished,
they've since drawn praise from the school, which has paid them $918,500.
The clinic was shut down in May amid investigations by police and the National
Institutes for Health.
The university has filed suit against the clinic's three supervising partners -
physicians Ricardo Asch, Jose Balmaceda and Sergio Stone. No criminal charges
have been filed.
The suit contends they failed to account for money, conducted unauthorized
research and gave patients' eggs to others without permission. At least three
babies have been born from stolen embryos, authorities believe.
The doctors have denied wrongdoing. Asch declined to testify. That drew a sharp
rebuke from another witness, John Challender. "I'm not surprised," he said of
Asch. "He's a monster. He's despicable."
Challender's wife, Debbie, has been told 10 of her 46 eggs harvested by Asch
went to other patients. One gave birth to a boy in 1992.
Since 1990, hundreds of women have used the center, in part because of Asch's
international reputation as the developer of a successful fertility technique in
which a woman's eggs are fertilized with her husband's sperm in a test tube, then
replaced in her body.
But according to Killane and Krahel, as well as university officials who
investigated, the doctors found a profitable prey in post-menopausal women
desperate because they no longer are fertile.
Highlights of the testimony of former clinic employees:
-- Eggs harvested from younger women were fertilized and transferred to
post-menopausal patients without permission. In some cases, consent forms were
-- To stimulate the harvest of eggs, doctors used an Argentinian drug - HMG
Massone - not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Such
stimulants might cause cancer, experts said.
-- Asch was paid in cash by the center for the drug, and each use was falsely
billed to the university as an "X-ray."
Chronicling a dramatic tale of suspicion, Krahel said the key moment - and the
reason she was punished - came when she called a patient to see if she had
consented to donating her eggs.
The patient had not consented, in part because doctors had harvested only 14
eggs, barely enough for herself.
At least one of her eggs was fertilized and implanted in another woman, who
gave birth to a boy, Krahel said. So the patient - who never has given birth to a
baby - is the biological parent of a child.
A lawyer testifying for an unnamed couple said their eggs somehow wound up in
a Wisconsin zoology lab for testing.
Killane said the doctors were driven by money. Killane said financial records
were "cooked" to disguise the amounts involved.
The doctors reported $5 million income between September 1991 and January
1995, according to the university.