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Silent Fear Lies Behind Fertility Furor : Medicine: Couples who received allegedly stolen eggs or embryos from UC clinics do not want their lives intruded upon. They especially do not want to lose their children.

August 06, 1995|JULIE MARQUIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — They are on the other side of the egg-swapping equation--the silent side, clinging to their privacy with white knuckles.

Although couples who allege that their eggs or embryos were snatched by renowned physicians in the UC fertility scandal have made no secret of their outrage, those who have received these "donations" have lain low, hoping to duck the inevitable cross-fire.

And that may be the smartest thing to do, say attorneys, ethicists and others familiar with the fiasco.

Though possibly shocked and angry at being ensnared in one of the ugliest medical controversies in University of California history, these couples fear having their family lives dissected, probed and intruded upon. Most of all, some are terrified about losing children they went to such desperate lengths to conceive, attorneys say.

"Just imagine [recipients] with children who they've bonded with for years and all of a sudden there is a fear in both them and perhaps their children that someone is going to take this precious jewel away from them," said Larry Feldman, an attorney representing two couples who believe their eggs were stolen and implanted in other women.

"It would be very unusual for them to want to voluntarily get involved in this mess," he said.

UC officials allege that as many as 40 women were involved in improper egg transfers at fertility clinics at UC Irvine, UC San Diego and AMI/Garden Grove medical centers. About half those women may be recipients of misappropriated eggs, resulting in the birth of as many as eight children, officials allege. The three doctors accused of misconduct deny knowingly engaging in wrongdoing.

For the undisclosed portion of recipients who live abroad, in such countries as Mexico and Panama, the strategy of choice may be to stay put until the crisis blows over. Attorneys say foreign parents may be legally untouchable. Even in California, family law attorneys say, courts tend to resist external challenges to existing families and may not favor genetic testing to establish the children's biological origins.

But that won't keep couples who feel robbed from trying to set things straight. Debbie and John Challender of Corona, who suspect that a Newport Beach family received their embryos--Debbie's eggs fertilized by John's sperm--and gave birth to twins have called for DNA testing of the youngsters.

The Challenders, who have an adopted child and one who was the result of a fertility procedure, will not seek custody of the twins but "would like the gift of knowing the progress of their children," said their attorney, Theodore S. Wentworth. "We would like to follow their ups and their downs."

Wentworth complained that his efforts on behalf of the Challenders to negotiate some resolution have been met with "aggressive rejection."

"You just want to punch him," Wentworth said of the Newport Beach couple's attorney, Steven Militzok, after an unproductive meeting.

Militzok said his clients just want to be left alone.

"My clients have no interest in a public debate regarding a very private matter," he said. "My clients have their children's well-being to consider."

The debate intensified when the Challenders expressed dismay that the children are being raised in the Jewish faith, rather than as Christians. The Challenders also want the twins to know they are not biologically related to the Newport Beach couple.

"The insensitive remarks of Mr. Wentworth and his clients have caused my clients incredible agony," Militzok said in a letter to The Times. "Implicit threats concerning the custody of my clients' children and derogatory statements as to my clients' religious persuasion have made every recent moment of my clients' lives a living hell."

It is unlikely that recipients' worst fears--loss of their youngsters--will come true, lawyers say.

For those recipients outside the country, there may be no way to compel them to supply evidence or appear in court.

"If we were talking about accusing people of some crime, the matter would be straightforward," said Edwin Smith, a professor of law and international relations at USC. "You would pursue extradition."

But if the alleged recipients are named as civil defendants, or as witnesses in civil cases, "even if the stars were smiling upon you it would be intensely complicated," Smith said. "My instincts are telling me impossible."

Most countries do not have laws such as those in the United States that require people involved in civil cases to provide evidence, Smith said.

Walter G. Koontz, an attorney representing three clients who believe their eggs were misappropriated, is not at all hopeful that foreign recipients will cooperate in donors' efforts to piece together what happened.

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