Creation

June 13, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- How do you describe the theft of a human egg? The kidnapping of an embryo? The abduction of reproduction?

Start by imagining, if you will, that you are an infertile couple who wanted a biological child badly enough to go through the expense, the indignities, the emotional and hormonal roller coaster of in-vitro fertilization. Imagine the month-by-month hopes and disappointments.

Imagine discovering years later that you do have a child. A boy born to another couple from your egg and possibly your sperm. Or twins carrying your DNA but someone else's name.

Imagine discovering that the ''extra'' eggs harvested from your body and maybe fertilized by your sperm were cavalierly given to another pair without your knowledge, without your permission. Your genetic material had been ''donated'' to them by your doctor.

This is the bizarre tale unfolding in California, where two couples are accusing doctors of theft and fraud. But these alleged hTC burglaries didn't take place at some fly-by-night medical office, or by some unknown quack.

This scandal of staggering proportions is said to have occurred at a renowned fertility center at the University of California, Irvine. The doctor being charged is Ricardo Asch, the very man who devised the GIFT procedure that greatly increased the odds of success of in-vitro fertilization. The man who also helped one of the suing couples give birth.

Dr. Asch, along with two partners, is accused of many things, of using unapproved fertility drugs and failing to report thousands of dollars to the university. But the charge that strikes the deepest is that he used eggs and sperm, fresh and frozen embryos, as if they were his to distribute.

Dr. Asch denies all this. He claims to be the victim of extortionists. But along with the mounting evidence accumulating in seven different investigations against him, there a sense of a story that was waiting to happen.

It's been 15 years since the first act of creation took place in a laboratory. The reproductive possibilities that followed the birth of Baby Louise have made our heads spin.

In these years, reproductive ''material'' has been separated from what we used to think of as the reproductive process. We've seen an egg and a sperm that got together in a petri dish implanted in a third person's womb.

We've seen surrogate wombs, post-menopausal mothers, women giving birth to their own grandchildren.

One result has been the joy of 40,000 couples who became parents. Another has been the dashed hopes of many more who didn't beat the long odds against success. But an unsettling by-product of laboratory creation has been the extra embryos, the spare eggs and sperm, the DNA frozen in suspended animation, ready or not for some later use.

In the past decade, a couple who died in a plane crash left their embryo in a freezer and left their relatives in a quandary. Another couple sued each other for custody of a frozen embryo as the last remains of their dissolving marriage.

We are also warehousing all sorts of genetic material -- who knows how many embryos, how many eggs, how many vials of sperm? -- from infertility treatments. In a desire to alleviate the desperation and pain of childlessness, we have walked waist-deep into an ethical quagmire.

How hard would it be for a doctor trained to think about eggs as ''reproductive material'' to decide not to ''waste'' the leftover ''material''? How hard would it be for a doctor whose single goal was to make babies to make them any way he could? This is a field, after all, with remarkably little oversight and even less regulation. Wasn't it likely to happen?

I am not suggesting that egg- or embryo-napping is somehow understandable. This is not in the ethical gray area. If the charges are true, Dr. Asch broke every rule in the book, from the guidelines of informed consent to the laws against burglary. If so, he violated the trust of his patients, violated their bodies and family bonds. If so, he's a thief, plain and simple.

But even if this is a rogue doctor, the fact is that infertility treatment is a medical business typified by too much desperation and far too little caution. It's wide open to abuse.

Today, that's become as clear as a crystal petri dish. One of the stars of the field is now charged with the cruelest and most perverse of ironies. He's accused of tricking infertile couples, who wanted nothing more than to have their own children, into providing children for others.

And in California there are at least four people left wondering about what one anguished father calls ''the missing children.''

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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