IRVINE — The couples came to Southern California from far-flung lands with purseloads of cash, humble offerings to famed baby-maker Dr. Ricardo H. Asch.
In his packed UC Irvine fertility clinic, the desperation was palpable--even suffocating--as each quietly prayed that medical magic might give them what nature could not.
Asch was loath to disappoint them. After fertility treatments costing upward of $8,000, the Argentina-born doctor would lean low over his patients, touch them gently and murmur encouragingly, "Dahling, I know you are pregnant."
In seeking to fulfill that promise, Asch once said, a physician must resist the temptation to "play too close to God."
But that, University of California officials charge, is exactly what Asch and his two globe-trotting partners failed to do.
In an extraordinary attack on three of its most prized medical superstars, the university has accused the fertility gurus of doing the unthinkable: stealing the eggs of women and implanting them in others. In at least two cases, they say, women who received the ill-gotten embryos gave birth.
The university's May 25 legal complaint did not stop there. Its 29 pages heaped one shocking allegation upon another, from charges that the doctors had given patients an unapproved fertility drug to accusations that they had performed research on patients without their permission.
The doctors--Asch, Jose P. Balmaceda and Sergio Stone--insist they did nothing wrong. They contend that they are victims of vindictive university administrators or inept staff members and a mysterious blackmailer intent on destroying their careers unless each pays $100,000.
Suddenly, the baby-making business that promised such prestige and fortune to all involved has become a minefield of unimaginable moral and legal problems.
There Are Few Rules in Baby-Making Field
The controversy has done more than taint a few doctors and an institution. It has exposed an unsettling lack of regulation in the fertility industry and at the academic centers where clinics often operate. UC Irvine admitted to federal regulators that its system of monitoring human research suffered an "unacceptable" breakdown in the case of its fertility specialists.
A clinical panel of UC doctors investigating the clinic found "credible evidence" that two UC Irvine patients' eggs had been misappropriated--a finding one panelist described as "inexcusable . . . unconscionable."
But in the quest to make babies, there are few rules.
"There's less regulation here than there would be in the animal-breeding industry," said Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of biomedical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's basically a market free-for-all with very little oversight over who offers services, what they do, how much they charge."
It is perhaps telling, Caplan and other physicians say, that three of the fertility industry's proudest pioneers--at least one of whom lectures widely on the ethical traps of his field--have triggered such painful self-examination.
"These people aren't on the fringe," Caplan said. "It's not like this was done at a new clinic or a seat-of-the-pants operation. These people were pioneers. It's certainly going to raise questions that will reverberate around the University of California system and throughout the nation."
So far, the university's efforts to control the crisis only seem to backfire. Last week, on the same day UC Irvine's top brass publicly denied that they had tried to hide the truth, they reluctantly confirmed that they paid three whistle-blowers about $900,000 as part of settlements requiring the employees to keep quiet about goings-on at the fertility clinic.
For damage control, the school also brought in a $300-an-hour public relations firm to salvage its soiled reputation--the same publicists Orange County hired in December to explain how one of the wealthiest counties in America landed in bankruptcy court.
Most days, the small, bland UC Irvine Center for Reproductive Health was crowded early with the type of patients not used to failure: professional, well-educated, certain that hard work and money produce results. They carried in bundles of cash or spread an array of credit cards on the counter to pay for a chance at fertility roulette.
By the time they landed in Asch's waiting room, confidence usually had given way to despair. So they sat, sometimes for hours, to see the jet-setting South American doctor whose Ferrari's personalized plates read "DR GIFT," after a fertility procedure he invented.
"The only thing I can think of when I think of Dr. Asch is that he would try to do anything to take away the heartbreak of infertility," said Ginger Canfield, 39, one of Asch's earliest patients in Orange County. The Buena Park woman gave birth to a daughter seven years ago through in-vitro fertilization done by Asch.