Fertility Doctor on the Run Arrested in Mexico

Fugitive fertility doctor apprehended in Mexico.

December 28, 2010, 12:05 PM

Dec. 29, 2010— -- U.S. authorities are working to extradite one of the doctors accused of being behind of the biggest fertility scandals in history. Mexican authorities arrested Dr. Ricardo Asch last month.

Back in the 1990s, Asch and another fertility doctor, Jose Balmaceda, were charged with stealing embryos and eggs belonging to dozens of women who sought treatment at the University of California-Irvine Center for Reproductive Health and implanting them into other women.

They are also accused of not reporting more than $1 million in earnings, and fleeing the country to avoid prosecution.

Marla McCutcheon is one of the women who says she was victimized by Asch. She was one of his patients until she decided to switch physicians because she said she found him "uncaring."

McCutcheon, from Irvine, Calif., says she found out years later that after she'd left Asch's care that there were leftover eggs she didn't know about. To this day, she doesn't know what happened to those eggs.

"I would have done anything for those eggs at that time. It's still hard for me to grasp that there might be something to my eggs. Someone may have been able to get pregnant from them," McCutcheon said.

At the time of the scandal, ABC News saw documents showing that more than 60 other women who were patients at the fertility center had eggs taken from them without their consent. Asch, however, said he knew nothing about it. During the time the incidents occurred, it was not illegal to transfer human tissue without consent.

"Well, if it is true, number one, I didn't know. Number two, I have never intentionally asked anyone to take eggs from people that didn't consent," Asch told ABC News around the time of the controversy.

Asch also told ABC News in 1995 that the charges against him were false and were essentially a conspiracy.

"I think there is a tremendous amount of envy, jealousy, of people that work in that center," he said.

Calls to Asch's attorney, Eliel Chemerinski of Beverly Hills, Calif., were not returned.

The scandal allegedly involving Asch, Balmaceda and another doctor, Sergio Stone, rocked the field of reproductive medicine, and doctors say they still feel its effects.

"Reproductive medicine is very new. It's come a long way and we've made tremendous progress, but because of scientific advances, it's very high-profile," said Dr. Jani Jensen, a Mayo Clinic reproductive endocrinologist in Rochester, Minn. "Whenever there are publicized incidents like this that involve ethical issues, it's sometimes difficult to engender the public's trust."

Dr. Howard Zacur, director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the Johns Hopkins Fertility Center in Baltimore, Md., said patients still want reassurance their eggs and embryos will be protected from these types of incidents.

It is now against the law in California to take eggs from a woman without her consent. But despite regulations and rigorous procedures that are in place designed to prevent similar situations from happening, experts say there's no legislation or ethical guidelines that can completely protect patients from rogue doctors.

"If someone chooses to behave in an unethical manner, then you're not ever going to be able to completely safeguard against it," said Dr. Richard Paulson, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

Experts also say procedures like in vitro fertilization undergo more scrutiny now than they did in the 1990s.

"The issue took place at a time when basically you had a clinical director who also was kind of a laboratory director and who made decisions about doing things that now, there are rules and guidelines against doing," Zacur said.

"In a modern day program, you have a laboratory director and a medical director who is aware of what goes on in laboratory, but isn't involved in the identification and storage and monitoring," he said.

"There are also lab staff who are very involved in labeling and identifying embryos and nurses very involved in communicating with the lab and patients, so an incident like this is most unlikely to take place unless everybody involved decided they were going to violate ethical and legal rules," Zacur said.

Over the past decade or so, professional societies such as the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, have successfully pushed for laboratories to be certified to make sure that procedures such as adequate verification of embryos are followed.

Fertility experts also say that the overwhelming majority of fertility centers take very careful precautions to prevent mistakes and ethical lapses.

"We treat eggs, sperm and embryos the same way police treat evidence," Jensen said. "We have a chain of custody and a system of checks and balances throughout the entire procedure."

In some centers, such as the Mayo Clinic, patients are introduced to the embryologist, the scientist who oversees the process of combining sperm and eggs to create embryos. This introduction helps personalize care and put the patient at ease.

"That way, there's a name and a face attached to a person that's caring for the embryos a person is about to receive," Jensen said. "By the time a patient undergoes in vitro fertilization, there's enough of a physician-patient relationship that they can trust and rely on us."

McCutcheon, who now has three adopted children, said that's a trust Asch betrayed. She was glad to hear of his arrest.

"I hope he's brought to justice. It just seems like he felt he was above the law, and none of us are above the law."

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