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Breaking the Silence

Whistle-Blower's Actions in UCI Fertility Scandal Spur Investigation, Legislation--and a TV Movie

August 21, 1996|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a tale stranger than television.

In May 1995, three physicians at UC Irvine's Center for Reproductive Health were accused of stealing eggs and embryos from women and implanting them in others without consent. UCI's fertility scandal, which also included allegations of money-skimming and use of unapproved drugs, meant scores of couples treated at the clinic now questioned the parentage of their own children and agonized over whether they had others elsewhere.

The scandal drew national headlines and the attention of television producers.

"I knew right away, even as the story was unfolding, I was interested," said Sheri Singer, vice president of movies and drama series for the Lifetime cable channel. "As unfortunate as it was, the story was in many ways for us the perfect story."

Singer, the force behind Lifetime's highly rated "Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story" in 1995, eagerly sought out a couple victimized by the scandal and one of three whistle-blowers who helped shut down the once-vaunted clinic. Singer found her docudrama subjects in fertility patients John and Debbie Challender of Corona and Marilyn Killane, the clinic's former office manager.

Framed by state Senate hearings in June 1995, "For the Future: The Irvine Fertility Scandal" (airing tonight at 9; reviewed on F2) chronicles Killane's struggle to uncover clinic wrongdoing and the Challenders' horrific descent into an unregulated science that bore them a son but also might have given away some of their biological children to strangers.

"It goes to the heart of who we are as women," Singer said. "It's a story of betrayal of trust. . . . It's a truly shocking story."

The clinic's three doctors, Ricardo H. Asch, Jose P. Balmaceda, and Sergio C. Stone, have all denied intentional wrongdoing. Balmaceda, who returned to his native Chile last year, and Stone were indicted in June on 30 counts of federal mail fraud. Asch, who has not been formally charged with any crime, now lives in Mexico.

The Challenders say they decided to go public with intimate details of their life to provide a cautionary tale for others seeking fertility treatments.

"We didn't take any of the risks into consideration when we went through it," said John Challender, who works for a trucking company. "When you want a child, you will literally do anything."

Since the scandal broke, the Challenders have aggressively sought publicity both in this country and abroad, appearing on radio or television in Australia, Germany, France and England. They have an agent and are working on a book.

"We wanted to get as much exposure as we could," John Challender said. "We knew we had to do it all the way or not at all. . . . We felt that was the best way to let people know what was going on."

The Challenders, who approved a shooting script of the docudrama, praised the production's accuracy.

"Bearing in mind it's not a documentary, we think the film is tremendous," John Challender said. "We said a lot of things portrayed in the film. The actors [Marilu Henner and Randle Mell as the Challenders; Linda Lavin as Killane] were just excellent too."

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However, he noted, some events were embellished to enhance dramatic impact. Take the scene that showed the Challenders' adopted 6-year-old dialing 911 at his gravely ill mother's bedside. In reality, according to John Challender, Debbie was under the care of two nurses who called for an ambulance when she experienced a severe reaction to a fertility procedure.

While the docudrama blames Asch for embryo stealing, it also accuses UCI of trying to cover up the scandal. It portrays university officials trying to frighten Killane into silence.

Perhaps not surprisingly, UCI officials aren't exactly applauding the program. In a two-page response to The Times, they take the opportunity to cite internal measures instituted to discourage a similar tragedy, and to deliver a few counterpunches of their own.

The "fictionalized" television drama, states the UCI release, contains "many inaccuracies," including creating the impression that the university dragged its feet in pursuing an investigation. Also, the UCI release continues, the docudrama fails to note that at the state Senate hearings, UCI "publicly commended Marilyn Killane for coming forward as a whistle-blower."

More than assigning blame, however, the Challenders hope the television production will advance legislation to outlaw human egg and embryo theft. Such a bill has already been approved by the state Senate.

"We have to make the repercussions for this far outweigh the advantages," John Challender said. "Otherwise, it's like a Vegas thing and the doctors have little to lose."

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