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'For the Future' Can't Capture Drama of Irvine Fertility Story


The Lifetime channel bills itself as "Television for Women." Based on its docudrama of the UC Irvine fertility scandal airing tonight, a more accurate description might be "Television for People Who Want Their Emotions Crassly Manipulated."

Despite the extraordinarily sensational real-life events at UCI's now-defunct Center for Reproductive Health, the makers of Lifetime's "For the Future: The Irvine Fertility Scandal" overdramatize at every step, managing to reduce unconscionable human pain to base melodrama.

The movie, written by Stephanie Liss and directed by David Jones, centers on Corona couple Debbie and John Challender (played by Marilu Henner and Randle Mell) and whistle-blower Marilyn Killane (Linda Lavin). Their story of alleged egg and embryo theft contains enormous potential for pathos, yet the movie taps virtually none of it.

The dramatic power of the Challenders' heart-wrenching pursuit of conceiving a child and Killane's admirable determination in exposing the clinic's wrongdoing is buried in two hours of overkill, cartoonish characters, one-dimensional acting and clunky dialogue.

Especially laughable is the characterization of the movie's villain, Dr. Ricardo H. Asch (Castulo Guerra), the former head of the fertility clinic. Asch, who has denied all charges of wrongdoing, might as well have been dressed as Darth Vader. He is portrayed as an arrogant, callous surgeon who won't take patient phone calls and is never far from his golf clubs.

From this appalling behavior, viewers are asked to make the significant leap to a deduction that Asch misappropriated eggs and embryos--an act we never see him commit (probably for legal reasons).

Dramatic license aside, the movie does have its merits. The facts of the story are largely as reported in the media, and the state Senate hearings in June 1995 investigating the scandal provide a good frame for making a complicated story more accessible.

But there are a few noteworthy and curious factual omissions.

No mention is made of Asch's partners, doctors Jose P. Balmaceda and Sergio Stone, who have also been accused of egg theft and money-skimming at the clinic. Nor is there a single word about two of Killane's fellow UCI whistle-blowers, whose efforts helped shut down the clinic.

Also left mostly unaddressed: What drove Asch to allegedly steal eggs and embryos and implant them in others? Other than a passing mention that Asch was "playing God," there's no exploration of the moral or psychological underpinnings for the gross acts.

Lifetime paid the Challenders a reported $60,000 for their gripping story. It might have been a better purchase if more of that story, and less melodrama, made it to the screen.

* "For the Future: The Irvine Fertility Scandal" airs at 9 tonight on Lifetime. A half-hour program that includes interviews with the Challenders, Killane and reporters follows the movie at 11 p.m.

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