University settles with patients over trade in ‘stolen’ embryos

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The University of California has settled, at a cost of about $14 million, 72 lawsuits filed by former patients of its fertility clinics at San Diego and Irvine, where two years ago it was alleged that eggs and embryos were stolen and implanted into other women or used for research.

Details of the agreement were not disclosed, under an order from the California Supreme Court to protect the privacy of the couples involved. According to the lawsuits, doctors at the clinics had given eggs to other couples without the consent of the women from whom they were taken (see Nature 376, 456; 456 1995 & 379, 756; 756; 1996).

In addition, patients were included in research studies without their consent; drugs not approved by US regulators were sold to patients; and informed consent for medical procedures was at best sloppy and poorly documented. As a result, children were born without the knowledge of the women who had produced their eggs.

The agreement must still be approved by Orange County Superior Court. James Holst, general counsel for the university, said in a statement that the university would continue to pursue settlement in the 30 cases remaining.

The Irvine Center for Reproductive Health is now closed, and the university's San Diego programme has reopened under new leadership, after being closed two years ago.

The three principal doctors in the case continue to face criminal charges and have been indicted on federal charges of mail fraud and income tax evasion. Two have left the country: Ricardo H. Asch is in Mexico and Jose P. Balmaceda is in Chile. Serio C. Stone is under house arrest in California. All have denied wrongdoing, and blame university officials for any paperwork mix-ups.

According to Laurel Wilkening, chancellor at the University of California at Irvine, the money for the settlement comes out of an insurance liability fund paid into by university medical centres. Tenet Healthcare Corporation, which now owns the hospital in which many of the cases originated, has agreed to help with the payment.

University officials say that the funds would not have been spent for any other purpose. But Gray Davis, California's lieutenant governor and an ex-officio member of the university Board of Regents, complained to reporters that taxpayers were once again paying to clean up a university management failure. He said managerial and fiscal controls must be improved.

In the wake of the scandal, the university set up task forces to look into supervision of research and quality of care at fertility centres.

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