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Doctors accused of 'biomedical rapes'

By DION NISSENBAUM

SACRAMENTO, Calif., June 14 -- Doctors under investigation for misconduct at the acclaimed University of California, Irvine fertility center were accused Wednesday of performing 'biomedical rapes' for allegedly transplanting patients' eggs without permission. In often emotional testimony before a special state Senate committee, victims and whistleblowers in the fertility scandal denounced the men to whom countless couples turned for help in starting a family. When given a turn to defend himself, Dr. Ricardo Ashe, head of the clinic, refused to testify even though he had been served with a subopoena. Debra Krahel, one of three university employees who alerted officials to the problems and was forced out of her job, told lawmakers both the doctors and UC-Irvine officials had failed the hopeful parents. 'Words can't describe the outrage that myself and my co- whistleblowers have felt while we have witnessed evidence to a series of what I'll call biomedical rapes that have occurred while the institution turned its back and still argues over who owns the medical records,' Krahel said. Krahel and the two other whistleblowers for the first time offered extensive details on the unfolding scandal. The three all reached large monetary settlements with the university that forced them to remain silent, but the legislative subpoena allowed them to speak out. The daylong hearing of the Special Select Committee on Higher Education examined allegations that Ashe and his Center for Reproductive Health transplanted embryos to patients without donor consent, used fertility drugs that had no approval from the Food and Drug Administration, doctored files to cover up the scandal and misappropriated funds.

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Although Ashe refused to testify, Dr. Sergio Stone and Dr. Jose Balmaceda, co-founders of the clinic, denied any wrongdoing and accused the university of treating them as scapegoats. 'I have no knowledge that transfers of eggs took place without patient consent,' Stone said. 'I did not participate in any way in these alleged actions.' Although the scandal only broke last month, whistleblowers said they had raised questions about the center as far back as 1991. Norbert Giltner, an operating nurse in the clinic who was the first to challenge center practices, estimated that as many as 11 embryos had been transferred without consent of the donor. In one case, Giltner said he was certain a patient had not agreed to donate eggs because a small number were removed and the woman did not get pregnant. 'It seemed really strange that she would be donating eggs when in fact she only donated 14 and did not get pregnant,' Giltner said. Giltner also testified that documents in another case had been falsified to show that a couple had agreed to donate eggs when in fact they had never consented to such a procedure. The couple, Debbie and John Challender, later learned that the woman's eggs had been implanted in another woman who later gave birth. 'This is just short of devastating for me because I felt that I always had control of my family's future,' said John Challender as he choked back tears. 'I appreciate the fact that we have the state concern and I only wish the University of California had been a little more concerned long before this happened.' Dr. Sidney Golub, vice chancellor at UC-Irvine, defended the university and said officials had done their best to protect patients and investigate the allegations. 'It's very easy when you have all the facts in to know how bad it is, but this happened progressively,' Golub said. 'Each part of the investigation opened up new problems at the center and our actions were progressive.' Golub also apologized to Marilyn Killane, manager of the fertility center, who was retaliated against after reporting that non-FDA-approved drugs had allegedly been used on patients. 'Individuals acted inappropriately against the whistleblowers,' Golub said. Killane and Krahel signed agreements that bar them from seeking employment in the UC system, while Giltner still holds his post in Irvine.

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