Dr. GIFT

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S1: Hey, this is Josh Levin, the host of one year, I hope you’re enjoying our season on 1995. This week, I’m going to turn things over to my Slate colleague Kristina Cauterucci.

S2: In the early 1980s, Rene Ballou and her husband had all the trappings of a perfect California life.

S3: You know, we bought a home and, you know, homes were very inexpensive then and we both worked and had good jobs.

S2: Renee was a sales manager for a carpet mill. Her husband own his own business. They had a son, a happy little boy who loved soccer, and Renee’s mother lived close by just a mile away.

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S3: We’d have dinner together, and we were just a normal family.

S2: For Rene. Something was missing.

S3: I never wanted to just have one child, but I wanted to have at least two children. And it was from the time I was very young that, you know, I had that in my mind and it was going to happen. And that’s just the way my life was going to be. We tried at least a couple of years to get pregnant on her own because we had no problem the first time.

S2: But eventually it became clear that they’d need medical assistance to have another baby. So Rene started in fertility treatments, dozens of trips to the doctor, daily injections, even surgery. She’d get her hopes up, only to be let down every time when the procedures didn’t work. Finally, in 1987, after years of trying, she gave up. And from there, Renee’s life got harder. She and her husband divorced in 1992, and three years later, her mother died suddenly from brain cancer.

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S3: I mean, I was just devastated. It was just awful. It really was.

S2: In the fall of 1995, Renee was hoping for a fresh start.

S3: I sold my house in Northern California and I was going to move back to Southern California and we actually had the movers there. The phone was getting ready to be disconnected

S2: right at that moment. Rene got a call

S3: and I picked up the phone and it was the reporter from the Orange County Register. She asked me if I had any family there with me that I probably needed to sit down. She had some information for me. Well, I really didn’t know what she was talking about, so my brother was there. We’re very close. I called him in, I said, Kimi, I have information. I had no idea what was going to be told to me.

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S2: The reporter was calling about the fertility clinic, the place where Renee and her ex-husband had gone in the 80s. That was almost a decade ago at this point. But the reporter said there was something René needed to know.

S3: She said that the FBI had gotten a hold of a Michael log and they had a list of women whose eggs were taken or stolen. And I was on that list.

S2: Someone had put Rene’s Eggs into the body of a stranger, and that stranger had given birth to a son.

S3: Oh, this one, I’m hysterical. I was in disbelief. My brother, first thing you said, was that such exciting news and I’m like, what? I was just, I think, in a fog.

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S2: Rene was shocked to learn that she had a genetic child living who knows where being raised by people she never met, and she wasn’t alone. There were other women getting the very same phone call. Renee’s personal nightmare was about to become one of the biggest scandals ever to hit the fertility industry.

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S4: Two couples, still childless, have learned they might be the biological parents of children born to others. If it is true, it could destroy careers and tear families apart.

S5: Ethics were ignored so that human lives could be traded for money.

S2: On this episode, the story of hopeful patients who entrusted their dreams and their genetic material to a famous doctor who followed no code of ethics but his own. This is one year 1995. Dr Gift. What did it feel like? You know, the first time you made an Embryo,

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S6: I was kind of blown away. I really, really liked it.

S2: Terry George started working as an embryologist in 1980.

S6: It was like instant gratification. If that makes sense, like I could get an Embryo. It worked at fertilized. Oh, they grew. Oh, I froze them. Oh, she got pregnant. And it was within a matter of two weeks. So I felt really good about helping people and helping people have babies, and it was a happy thing to do. And I just was good at it.

S2: When Terry started out, fertility medicine was still a new frontier.

S4: All our tests have shown that the growth the baby is satisfactory.

S2: The first IVF baby, Louise Brown, had been born just a couple of years earlier in 1978,

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S1: after the initial demonstration that Louise Brown could be made outside the body in vitro fertilization clinics quickly grew.

S2: Arthur Caplan is a professor of bioethics at New York University.

S1: In the early days, a lot of clinics couldn’t even make a baby. They just didn’t seem to have the techniques right for picking the right Eggs or whatever the issue was.

S6: Nobody really knew how to do it. You know, everybody was trying to learn for Terri.

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S2: All those unknowns were the best part of the job.

S6: It was fun because you’re learning all the time and you know, you tried to make things better, get the pregnancy rate better, get the freezing better. But it was a very stressful job because it isn’t like you can make a mistake. There’s no mistakes in IVF. There can’t be like, What are you going to do? Drop a dish and say, Oops, sorry, there’s $10000 in your baby’s down the drain, so you can’t do that.

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S2: By the mid 1980s, fertility medicine was booming. A billion dollar industry, and Terry worked with two of the most successful doctors in the field. Jose Blum Marcida and Ricardo Ashe. Maria Shriver featured Dr. Ashe in a report about the future of fertility technology.

S5: Dr. Ashe is already working on Eggs from human donors. The ability to freeze human eggs may be around the corner, I

S1: think will be one of the most important breakthroughs in reproductive medicine ever, and certainly one of the most, if not the most important in the next twenty or twenty five years, in my opinion.

S5: It’s a Nobel Prize achievement.

S1: It could be a very well being.

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S2: Dr. Ashe had moved to the U.S. from Argentina in the 70s. Dr. Ball Maceda fled from Chile under threat from the Pinochet regime. The doctors met at the University of Texas at San Antonio. It was there that they had a major breakthrough. Dr. Ashe got famous for it. It was a procedure called gift that’s an acronym for gamete intra fallopian transfer. Since all the action happens in the fallopian tube,

S7: well, gift was a more quote unquote natural way of getting the sperm and the egg together in the human tube and not in the laboratory.

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S2: That’s Sergio Stone. He was a fertility doctor at the University of California, Irvine.

S7: They will remove a mature a from the ovary with a special needle. Then they will do a laparoscopy to look inside of the abdomen. They will pick up the tube and will introduce their a mixture of 100000 sperm and one egg.

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S2: When Dr. Ashe invented gift, it looked like a step up from the standard infertility procedure. That was the test tube baby method IVF the gift.

S7: It was more successful. The IVF had a very low rate of birth at a large number of pregnancies, but not birth.

S2: Some patients also liked that gift seems to mimic the traditional insemination process. That’s how the pope felt, at least. The Vatican forbade almost every other assisted reproductive technology, but gift was approved. Sergio Stone was wowed by what Dr. Ashe had accomplished and by the doctor himself,

S7: where he was a very interesting person. He was very bright. His research was meaningful to me. Was a good friend.

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S2: Sergio was so impressed that he hired Dr. Ash and Dr. Blum Marcida to start their own clinic at UC Irvine. In 1986,

S7: the university invested a lot in bringing not only the traditional Marcida, but also their PhDs that embryologists their technologies. A big group,

S2: Sergio practiced at the new clinic, too, mostly doing uterine surgery and hormonal treatments, and he had his own patients. Renee Ballou was one of them. She came to see him to find out why she was having trouble conceiving a second child. A year of less invasive treatments didn’t work, but Sergio told Renee that since her Eggs were viable, there was another option.

S3: He said We’ve got these great doctors that just moved here from Texas, and they have a new program called Gift.

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S2: Rene couldn’t believe her luck. The doctors who had pioneered this cutting edge procedure were right there in Southern California.

S3: These doctors, I mean, they were like going to be a miracle for me. They were going to help me get pregnant.

S2: By the time Rene went to the clinic in 1987, it was already a hotspot.

S3: Very busy clinic and the waiting room was always tens of people. I mean, people flew in from all over the world.

S2: Rene likes Dr. Ash. A lot of people did. One person who worked with him said he was so charismatic he could sell sand in the desert. He gave her nay confidence that she could have the second child. She’d always wanted,

S3: you know, he seemed very intelligent, very nice, very kind. I felt very comfortable with him. The doctor said, You know, my Eggs were perfect. You know, I’m perfectly healthy. They ensured that I was a top candidate for this gift program and that I would more than likely become pregnant.

S2: Rene started treatment, she had to miss work sometimes to make the two hour round-trip drive to the clinic.

S3: You’d have to go through, you know, blood work every day and each day we went in, they would give you like another baggie full of shots you were going to have to give yourself. I can’t imagine how much money was going through there because, you know, like every little baggie of drugs was like a thousand dollars and they’ve got a whole waiting room full of patients.

S2: Rene would take hormone injections every day to get her ovaries to develop multiple Eggs when the eggs were mature. She was supposed to come back into the clinic for laparoscopic surgery. Dr. Ashe would then harvest the eggs and inject them along with sperm into her fallopian tube. But before her surgery, Dr. Ashe realized they’d miss their chance. Their timing was off, and she’d already ovulated before they could capture the eggs. So she started the whole process again

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S3: the second time I harvested like 24 eggs. He was so happy that, you know, we had such a good amount to choose from, and they were going to take the foremost, you know, viable ones and use it for the procedure.

S2: Rene had more Eggs than she needed for the gift procedure, and the clinic had already asked her what she’d want to do in exactly this circumstance.

S3: We were asked to sign a consent form to see if we wanted to donate eggs or not. We checked. No, we do not. I mean, I’m trying to get pregnant and I’m not going to give away anything, you know, not my eggs. Those are, you know, the ones I’m going to use again if I have to.

S2: When Rene left the hospital after her gift procedure, she had a feeling it hadn’t worked. About two weeks later, the clinic confirmed it. She wasn’t pregnant. She considered trying again, but ultimately she decided against it.

S3: I just said, no, I just I just can’t do it anymore. We would put our life on hold for so many years. I got a big promotion, threw myself into my work, and it was like that phase of our lives was over.

S2: In the decade after Renee ended her treatments, the fertility industry got even bigger, the number of clinics in the U.S. grew tenfold to about 300. Treatments were improving all the time and thousands of Americans became pregnant thanks to medical techniques that weren’t available to their parents. IVF success rates improved, too, so the more invasive gift procedure got much less popular. But for all that growth, there was very little regulation. No one was making the case for it, not the clinics which were doing a brisk business and not the patients who wanted children and were desperate for help.

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S1: You’re making babies for profit. What people are looking out for is the cash customers.

S2: Bioethicist Arthur Caplan again.

S1: If we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars doing this, so it was a very, almost a Wild West kind of an area. Nobody watching cash business. If you ever wanted to see what free market medicine look like, it looked like infertility treatment in the 80s.

S2: So what kind of doctors does a field like this attract entrepreneurs? Entrepreneurs like Ricardo Asch, the doctor who harvested Rene’s Eggs the fertility business was very good to Dr. Ashe. He owned two expensive homes in coastal California towns, and he drove a red Ferrari with a license plate that said Doctor Gift. After the procedure he’d pioneered. Then there were the racehorses. Dr. Ashe owned five of them. Workers at his clinics called the Thoroughbreds the Alpo Express, because they weren’t very good. But Ashe told his staff that he wanted to win the Kentucky Derby. He wasn’t all glitz and no substance, though. The embryologists Terry Ordeal thought his sterling reputation and the clinics were well earned.

S6: I think they were excellent doctors. They thought a little out of the box in a good way to where they could improve things.

S2: But after a few years working with Dr. Ash in California, Terry started to sense that something was off.

S6: The place was so busy and so chaotic things just kind of got haphazard.

S2: Terri spent most of her time in the lab, not with patients, but she heard stories. A patient would be on the operating table under anesthesia, and Dr. Josh would leave to take a call from his horse trainer. There was a lot of cash in the clinic, sometimes going home with the doctors, maybe not reported to the university, and there was some stretching of the truth on insurance forms. But there was one story Terri heard that was really disturbing. It had to do with patients donating their extra Eggs more than once a medical assistant would tell her that they’d been instructed to use donated Eggs from patient so-and-so.

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S6: And then they would say, I don’t think this person would have donated just from being around the patient. I just don’t think this person would have

S2: the medical assistance knew their patients. They’d spent weeks doing their blood tests, taking their vitals, giving them injections, and these patients had never mentioned wanting to donate their eggs.

S6: It was just weird. So people started talking in the clinic, but nobody had any proof.

S2: It was Terry’s job to make the Embryos, and Dr. Ashe was the one who told her which sperm and which Eggs to use.

S6: Somebody would have an egg retrieval. She get x number of eggs, and after that, at some point Ashe would come in and say, This patient wants to donate, take four of her eggs and the recipient is this person. He was the one that handled the patients. He was the one that knew what they needed. He was the one that treated them. So you just did what he said.

S2: Terry had never doubted Dr. Ashe. But with all the rumors she was hearing, she didn’t know what to think. Did all those egg donors sign off? Did any of them

S6: at first is like, what? You can’t really believe it. And then I’m like, Oh my God, I don’t know who donated and who didn’t.

S2: Terry was afraid of what might happen if she accused Dr Josh of something unethical or even criminal, especially without any proof.

S6: What are you going to do? Go and say some of the doctor and he says, I talked to, you know, you’d be fired, at least there. We would have been fired for something like that. He’s soft-spoken, but that doesn’t mean that he was soft.

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S2: So Terri didn’t say anything not to the doctors and certainly not to the authorities, but others did. And the world was about to find out exactly what was going on at Dr. Asha’s clinic. In 1995, Kim Christensen was an investigative reporter at the Orange County Register, and one of his colleagues had just gotten an astonishing tip.

S1: My editor came to me one day and said, Susan Kelleher, our health care writer, was working on this sort of fantastic story and wanted to know if I’d be interested in working with her.

S2: The health care reporter had been talking to one of her regular sources, a UC Irvine Medical Center official.

S1: This administrator said to her, well, would you be interested to know that Dr. Ash has been stealing Eggs? My first thought was this crazy that these doctors who were so well known would put their entire careers on the line to do something like that.

S2: A staffer at the clinic gave them a stash of photocopied medical records. They showed that in 1991, Dr. Ash had harvested Eggs from one patient and used them in another. That’s second woman had gotten pregnant and given birth. The O.C. register reporters wanted to find out if that first patient had given her consent if it was a voluntary donation or theft. They found her address and drove to her house.

S1: It was like, you know, driving with goose bumps. It was quite a moment to have to tell somebody that, you know, maybe somebody else has a child who’s genetically yours. I mean, everything hinged on this interview. Not only was it a difficult subject to broach with somebody, but you know the entire story hinged on what the answer was.

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S2: They got to the door and found the patient there with her husband, and the couple had a lawyer with them, maybe because they’d been tipped off by the source who’d provided the documents, but they didn’t seem to know exactly what the reporters were going to tell them.

S1: The young couple both looked pretty freaked out at that point. They went back into the bedroom and left us with the attorney, and we sat down with him and showed him what we had.

S2: They asked the lawyer their big question Did the patient consent to giving away her Eggs?

S1: And then he excused himself, said, no, I’ll be back in a in a minute. Few minutes past, and we’re kind of looking at each other like, you know, what’s going on? And he came back out by himself and sat down and he just said they’re devastated.

S2: The following day, the patient gave them a statement. No, she said. I did not donate those Eggs

S1: at that point. We knew we had the story and we sort of dashed back to the office to finish writing it up, and it ran the next day.

S2: The newspaper published the piece on May 19th, 1995, and the news got picked up everywhere.

S4: This next story could have a couple of science fiction, but it happened in real life. Imagine if you didn’t really know how many kids you had produced.

S5: Suppose the doctor you had come to see as your savior was secretly taking advantage of you. Its high tech kidnapping? They call it biomedical rape.

S2: That first O.C. register story proved that one woman’s Eggs had been stolen, but the full scope of the clinic’s abuses was slowly coming into view.

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S1: We all knew that once our story ran that it would just sort of light the match to a much bigger story. You know, now it’s off and running.

S2: The O.C. Register discovered that UC Irvine administrators had known about the allegations of Eggs stealing for at least a year, maybe longer. The university had started its own investigation and it shut down the clinic a few weeks after The O.C. register story broke, but it had yet to inform the suspected victims. So in some cases it was reporters like Kim Christensen who told them that their Eggs had been misused. Over the course of several months, The O.C. Register discovered more victims and published more stories. Patients filed malpractice suits. The doctors refused to open their books, and the scandal kept expanding.

S4: The University of California, Irvine, now says there may be at least 30 cases where that number seems to be going up all the time.

S5: Dozens of women as many as 60 or more, and that resulted in at least seven known births.

S2: As the numbers rose, the whole country had its eyes on the Irvine scandal. Victims did interviews on The Phil Donahue Show and Oprah.

S5: Do you feel that you want to in some way, you know, contact that family, let those children know that I’m your mom and dad. I don’t think at this point for a three year old that we need to come in as parents. But I want to meet them. I want to hold them. I want to love them. I want to have a relationship.

S2: For tabloids and talk shows, this was a dream story. Famous doctors, gee whiz technology and parents discovering long lost children. A narrative fit for a soap opera or a lifetime movie. There was one of those to have a

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S5: consent form here. It shows your signature agreeing to be the egg donor for other women. No, that’s a lie.

S3: I never agreed to anything. However, my Embryos

S6: were my babies.

S2: Rene Balu first saw the news in a July 1995 story in People magazine. It said that the doctors who’d done her fertility treatments had misused some other patients Eggs. The headline A Fertility Nightmare.

S3: And I remember thinking that, oh no, they wouldn’t have done that. I said if they did any of this, it was years later they were very professional. They would never have stolen my Eggs. It just left my mind.

S2: A few months later, Renee got that call from an O.C. register reporter. The doctors had stolen her Eggs,

S3: and she said that their story was going to break the next day and that’s why she had to get a hold of me.

S2: The reporter faxed Renee a document that piece of paper listed Renee as an egg donor to a woman who had given birth, and next to her name was a symbol for the sex of the child.

S3: I remember, I don’t know the difference point a girl signed for some reason, and I remember asking my assistant and she goes, That’s a boy.

S2: Renee, did the math if her Eggs had been taken in 1987 when she’d had her gift procedure. That would mean the child was around seven years old. She could barely wrap her head around what that meant that in a way the second child she’d always wanted was out there born to someone else. But she pulled herself together just enough to explain it to her 11 year old, her first child, the son she’d given birth to.

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S3: Someone Took, you know, mom’s egg and put it with, you know, the husband’s sperm and you have a half brother out there.

S2: Dr. Ash never denied that some patients Eggs had been misused. The evidence was irrefutable. He just said it wasn’t his fault. Here he is on NBC Nightly News.

S1: I’m very sorry. You know, I didn’t know that was happening. And if I would have known none of this would have happened.

S2: Ash’s lawyer said it wasn’t the doctor’s job to pay attention to which Eggs were going.

S4: Where to have to understand Dr. Ashton going in the morning, unlock the door, clean up, do the paperwork, sign the forms tract forms. He’s a surgeon. He harvests Eggs. He does surgical procedures.

S2: In one case, a patient found out that a woman she’d never met had given birth to twins using her Eggs. Reporters showed the patient a color copy of her consent form. Her signature was in black ink. The box consenting to the egg donation was checked in blue. She insisted she hadn’t checked that box. Dr. Ashe wouldn’t say the patient was lying.

S1: I’m sure she’s right. I’m sure she didn’t mark yester. And I’m sure someone in the university. Someone in the center that was trying to hurt me, trying to set me up. Did that? I think there is a tremendous amount of envy and jealousy of people that work in that center

S2: in a sworn deposition. The doctor tried to pin it all on Terry Ward, the embryologist.

S6: You said that I was the one that did the transfers and that did all this stuff, and he just trusted me too much. That was the issue, and that was actually I just started laughing because it was so stupid.

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S2: Terry spent four days giving her own deposition. She told the lawyers that the clinic had two sides. There was the patient facing part where the doctors and nurses performed procedures and the staff collected the consent forms. And there was the lab where the Eggs were inspected and the Embryos got made. Terry said that Dr. Ashe was the only person who worked on both sides.

S6: The people in the lab, the embryologist, they didn’t see patients. They didn’t treat patients. They were his patients.

S2: The L.A. Times reported that Terry gave the most credible and damaging testimony against Dr. Ashe. He’d given the orders. He’d done the transfers. There were too many cases and too much documentation for it to be an accident. And while his partner, Dr. Robbed Marcida, had definitely been involved, the bulk of the responsibility lay with Dr. Ashe. By the time this all went public, Terry had left the clinic. She’d moved back to Texas and had twins.

S6: This is another fun side note of what happened. We got a lawsuit. One of the patients at the clinic said that we stole their Embryos and that my kids were theirs. Your kids? Yes, it was awful. Awful. I was horrified. I was panicked. I was like, Well, what do we even have to answer this? What are we going to do? You know, I was I was terrified. Of course, that’s not true. I had IVF and I had it in Texas, and I picked my Embryos out myself because I was friends with the lab guy.

S2: Once it became clear that the egg theft was a deliberate practice, not an accident, the case took on a more sinister cast. A power hungry doctor playing fast and loose with human life. At least 15 children were born from stolen eggs. To some people, it looked like the fertility industry had gotten too big, too fast before anyone had settled on the right and wrong of it all.

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S4: The revelations indicate how reproductive medicine has raced ahead of social controls. There are seven separate investigations underway, but it’s unclear what the doctors could be charged with.

S2: The doctors had done some shady stuff with insurance billing, so they could be charged with mail fraud, and they’d prescribed a drug that was used in South America but wasn’t FDA approved, that was illegal. But stealing genetic material from dozens of women creating babies without their permission. Was there a law against that? Tom Hayden, the activist who’d been one of the Chicago seven, was now a California state senator. He looked into those questions, and he found that the worst things Dr. Ashe was accused of. They were technically legal.

S8: There’s no felony on the books for the theft of an egg or taking an egg without informed consent because theft is about property. So an egg is not property, or is it?

S5: So if you steal an Embryo or an egg from a cow, there’s a law for first human Noah.

S2: No matter what the law said, taking Eggs without a patient’s consent was clearly immoral.

S7: I had some disbelief at the beginning. I said there might be a misunderstanding, but the evidence was there.

S2: Sergio Stone had brought Dr. Ash to California and worked with him at the fertility clinic. But Sergio didn’t do much of the IVF or gift work. That was the other doctor specialty. He found out about the Eggs stealing at a UC Irvine faculty meeting just a few weeks before the rest of the country saw it on the news.

S7: There was data showing exactly which is when to which patient because everything was documented. What is amazing if you are going to do a crime, quote unquote, you don’t want to document that you don’t do a video when you are stealing a bank.

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S2: Sergio thought Dr. Ashe and Dr. Obama SATA were his friends, but in the summer of 1995, he got a nasty surprise.

S7: It wasn’t a phone call. Somebody told me, You know, Ricardo and Pepe are gone. And I said, What do you mean are gone?

S5: Ash, who was being investigated by, among others, the FBI, the IRS and U.S. Customs has left the country.

S2: Stealing Eggs may have been legal, but insurance fraud wasn’t. So the FBI started investigating the fertility clinic at UC Irvine. But before any charges could be filed, Dr. Jose Blum Marcida went back to Chile and Dr Ricardo Asch. He sold both his California homes and fled to Mexico. Sergio Stone was the only one of the doctors who stayed in the United States.

S7: After they left, I thought that I was in deep trouble. Because there was not to be anybody else there. But I was naive enough to believe that when the facts were out. I wasn’t going to be spared, you know, an injustice.

S2: In the months after the other doctors skipped town, Sergio became severely depressed.

S7: I was thinking about the harm and the pain that the patients may have. You know, especially those that did not get pregnant, but their embryos were implanted. I think that a few scenes that can be worse for our infertile couple that feel that finally they have an embryo and it’s gone. I could not think about anything else. That was the worst part. I kept thinking, what if I didn’t bring Asian Blum Marcida? I would not be here.

S2: A few months after Sergio learns what the other doctors had done, his worst fears came true.

S7: The bell rang at 6:00 in the morning and my wife, she opened the door and there were two or three detective. There were flashes of police cars in the front. So they came in and they say, we have an arrest warrant for you and for your protection. We’re going to put handcuffs on you. So I was protected.

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S2: A jury found Sergio guilty of insurance fraud. He got fined and served a year of house arrest. He’s 79 years old now after his probation. He kept his medical license, but he hasn’t practiced in decades.

S7: I simply could not. My depression, my nervousness. I became very scared of making a mistake again, and I was second guessing everything I did. I had no confidence in me. I completely destroyed my life. My life disappeared at that time, so I have two lives,

S2: and those two lives are what

S7: before and after that rush? Yeah.

S2: A few months after Dr. Ashe fled the country, Rene Blum saw him on television.

S3: I remember my family called me and they said, Do not turn on Dateline. So of course I did. And it was just devastating to me. The whole thing was so devastating that here he was practicing in Mexico.

S1: You’re in the best place in Mexico because of the people that we have here is for peace and love reporting and the treatments are available.

S2: She was still furious at Dr. Ashe for what he’d done to her and for getting away with it. But mostly she was wondering about the boy who’d been born from her egg.

S3: You know what he might look like if he looked like me? If you look like his dad? You know, if he’s healthy, what kind of family is and are they, you know, are they good people? What if they’re not? You know, I’ve got to get him out of that situation.

S2: Was there a part of you that still thought maybe this might all not turn out to be true?

S3: Yes, I definitely thought that there hadn’t been any, you know, DNA testing done on any of the children yet.

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S2: The reporter who’d contacted Renee was also in touch with the child’s birth parents. She offered to make a connection. They met over speakerphone

S3: and they were very defensive. You know, they were just, you know, they were protecting their son. I mean, they were just being very standoffish, not warm. Basically, who are you and why are we having to have this conversation?

S2: Renee asked the birth mother what the doctors had told her about the Eggs she was getting.

S3: The only thing she knew was that I was blond haired, blue eyed, which I’m really green eyed but blond hair blue eyed, and that they considered those to be the Gucci Eggs. And so I was a Gucci egg donor.

S2: The two women agreed to do a DNA test to confirm that the boy was Rene’s genetic son,

S3: so I swab, they swab, we send it off and I remember it was Christmas time and I had been on a trip and I came home and there was a letter saying that we were a match.

S2: Every child born from a stolen egg raised the same set of uncomfortable questions. Some were personal. The patients whose Eggs were taken, what role should they play in the lives of the children who had their genes? What would you even call that relationship? And there were legal questions, too. This wasn’t like adoption or surrogacy or voluntary egg donation. The genetic parents had never signed away their parental rights. One victim, whose Eggs became another family’s twins, sued for custody of the children, who were six years old by then. When Renee found out that she had a second genetic child, she wanted to know what her options were.

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S3: My attorney wanted me to go after visitation for him. But you know, I felt like I didn’t know about him too. Seven. If you would have been like one or two, I might have gone for visitation, but not at seven or eight. Not would have really, you know, I think, bitter, horrible for him.

S2: But Renee kept in touch with the birth parents. They spoke on the phone, sometimes for a while. She had to go through a third party, a lawyer, every time she wanted to talk because the couple wouldn’t share their phone number or address. And Renee understood she couldn’t blame them for being scared. One couple who’d had their Eggs stolen admitted to finding the birth parents address and having their genetic offspring videotaped

S3: the birth mother. She asked me one time. Can you believe that some of these parents are like trying to take pictures of these kids? And I said, Yes, I can’t believe that, because if I knew where you lived, I’d be taking a picture to.

S2: This was Rene’s life now. It had changed in an instant with that first phone call. A lot of her time was spent dealing with her lawyer trying to hold the University of California, Irvine, accountable. The school’s administrators said they had no way of knowing what the doctors were doing in the clinic and that they shut it down as soon as they found out. But the school settled with around 140 victims rather than fight them in court. UC Irvine paid out more than $27 million. A lot of those settlements went to women whose eggs were stolen, but didn’t result in live births. The victims, like Rene, who had genetic children born to someone else, got the biggest payouts. Renegade $460000, a lot of money, for sure, but it didn’t provide her much comfort. She kept talking to her genetic child’s birth mother and struggling to deal with the complex emotions that brought up an urgent desire to know more about the boy and also the agony of having a tiny window into the life of the child she never knew.

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S3: That was the year that I started drinking alcohol ugly. Just stuff the pain down and to, you know, make it through. I mean, I remember talking to her at night and then I drink a bunch of wine and, you know, really over the years got out of control. And I’ve got, you know, almost 18 years sober now. But, you know, I did not get sober for about eight years.

S2: When Renee’s genetic son was about eight, she got the chance to talk to him on the phone. The boy’s mother told him that Renee was a friend from work.

S3: I was very excited and I felt so thankful to her that she trusted me enough to, you know, let me speak with him. I could have been a crazy lady and said, you know, some crazy thing to him, but she didn’t do that, and I really respected her for that. And I thought, Oh my gosh, I can’t blow this. I just asked him, You know, how is soccer today and how school? Just like things you would ask a normal eight year on, and he was really cute and he answer my questions.

S2: What was your impression of of the boy you spoke to?

S3: Oh, that was a very happy child. You know, normal doing sports loving school, you know, just like my son had, you know, done at that age.

S2: Renee was relieved to know that he was OK, but she still had questions, ones that continue to haunt her.

S3: I would really want to know why they did it because it’s, you know, I’ve kept my head above water and I’m a strong woman, but it pretty much, you know, has destroyed my life.

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S2: Why would these doctors risk their reputations and their life’s work to do something that was so clearly unethical? A lot of people speculated that it was about money. More successful pregnancies meant more cash, more fancy houses, more cars, more racehorses. But Renee wants to believe the doctor thought he was doing a good deed that he didn’t want viable Eggs to go to waste when he had patients who needed them.

S3: I choose to believe they were trying to play God and help people. That’s that was one. That’s the excuse that I like to live with, that they were trying to help people and it wasn’t all about money.

S2: That line. That’s exactly what Dr. Ash said when Sergio Stone asked him why he did it.

S7: He said there were so many Eggs wasted from this lady and this poor lady couldn’t get pregnant with her own. Something like that. So I believe that his arrogance, he thought he could do it to save the happiness of a couple. They were wrong. But what you were thinking.

S2: We tried to reach Ricardo Asch and Jose iBall Marcida, but neither of them responded. Dr. Blum Marcida settled back in Chile, working at a prestigious fertility clinic. Two of his kids stayed in the U.S. One of them is Pedro Pascal, the actor who plays The Mandalorian on the Star Wars series. The U.S. tried to Extradite Dr. Ashe from Mexico and Argentina on counts of tax evasion and mail fraud. But that effort failed. He continued his practice in Mexico City in open clinics in Cancun and Acapulco a couple of years ago. He gave a TED talk

S1: know Mundo Man, the auto hygiene is the best protecting me. Cauterucci science is still.

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S2: After the Irvine Eggs stealing scandal broke in 1995, the main response everywhere was outrage. Outraged that the doctors had been allowed to make babies with whatever genetic material they pleased and that Dr. Ashe and Dr. Blum Marcida had escaped without any punishment. Some commentators went a step further. They claimed that the whole field of fertility medicine was morally suspect.

S4: There’s something deeply dehumanizing about the invasion of this kind of technology into human reproduction.

S5: Don’t you get the creeps a little bit from that? Where does it go from

S4: here in the bond of parenthood has now been really altered beyond repair.

S2: California did make stealing human Eggs a felony in 1996. But for all the indignation that followed the Irvine scandal, there was no large scale movement for reform. Every now and then, a state legislature will respond to some outrageous abuse. Just last year, Colorado made it a crime for a doctor to inseminate patients with his own sperm without the patient’s consent. But all these years after Ervine, the laws that govern fertility medicine really haven’t changed much. That’s partly because violations like these seem like they must be illegal already because they’re so clearly wrong. It’s also impossible to write legislation about Eggs and Embryos without touching on when life begins a question with enormous political implications. If an embryo is property, then stealing one is theft. If it’s a person, then taking one without consent is kidnapping. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan again,

S1: can the surrogate mother claim the baby? What happens if people die and don’t use the Embryos? What happens if somebody becomes divorced? And one person wants the Embryo and another person doesn’t know regulation, then no regulation now.

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S2: The legal particulars of the Irvine scandal were never the major focus of national news coverage. The human side, the greedy doctors, the grief stricken patients, the 15 children that we know about who were born from stolen Eggs. That was the story that stuck. The only one of those children I’ve been able to find any information on is the boy born from Rene’s egg and only because she’s told me it’s been 26 years since Renee found out about him and the pain of that discovery hasn’t diminished. Every now and then something comes up and it feels like a fresh wound like this moment not too long ago with her first son, the one she raised.

S3: He just started a new job. He works for Homeland Security, so he has to list his brother on there because if if they found out he had a brother, then you know, it can be a big mess with his job, and it just never seems to go away.

S2: Renee and the birth mother met in person for the first time in 2010. It was almost 15 years after they first spoke. Rene wanted to know everything about the boy who by this point was a young man and the other woman, his mother. She had questions to,

S3: you know, had my son gone on to college. If not, why? You know, did I have any behavioral problems? And you know what kind of health history we had in our family?

S2: The two women started meeting up every couple of years. They became friends, joined by an experience no one else could understand. But even then, they sometimes talked past each other.

S3: One time when we were having lunch, she brought me some baby pictures of him. I just started bawling. We were in a restaurant and she was like, She doesn’t understand that side of it. I don’t think she goes, Why are you crying? You know, not in a mean way. But I said, because I’m thinking of the time, you know, I could have had with him. I mean, because he is biologically my son and she doesn’t see it that way. So that’s one thing we just kind of stay off that subject.

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S2: Did you ever ask to meet him?

S3: Yes. I’ve asked many times since he was probably 16 and up because he already knew how he was conceived. So but he his stance is that he doesn’t he’s not ready or doesn’t want to meet my son and I at this point, you know, he’s thirty three now, so I don’t know if he’s ever going to, you know, he he got married a couple of years ago and and, you know, my son would love to meet his brother, but I don’t think it’s reciprocated the other way. The hardest thing is living with the fact that, you know, he’s out there, I know where he is and he doesn’t want to meet me, that’s very, very painful.

S2: Do you still hope he might come around?

S3: Absolutely. I hope it every day.

S1: Christina Cauterucci is a Slate senior writer. Next time on one year, 1995, the nation discovers the world wide web and gets hooked on an online soap opera.

S5: Nothing like this had ever been done before. Like, are people really putting their lives on the internet? What? Who would do that?

S1: One year is produced by Evan Chung and me Josh Levin with editorial direction by Lo and Lu and Gabriel Robbed. Madeline Ducharme is one year assistant producer, and we got additional production help from Shane O’Rourke. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1995 at one year at Slate.com, and you can call us on the one year hotline at two oh three three four three zero seven seven seven. We’d love to hear from you. Our mix engineer is Merritt Jacob. The artwork for one year is by Jim Cook. Stealing Dreams by Mary Dodge and Gilbert Geis was a valuable resource for this episode. So with the Orange County Register’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporting, some of the audio used in this episode came from the California State Senate Media Archive and the University of California, Irvine. Thank you to the University of California, Irvine Special Collections and archives. Special thanks to Seb Ghalib, Mary Dodge, Pamela Coud, Gregory Cellino, Norbert Guiltier, the third Alicia Montgomery, Jared Holt, Laura Bennett, Alison Benedict, Derek John, Susan Matthews, Rosemary Belson, Holly Allen, Katie Rayford, Ayesha Saluja, Amber Smith, Seth Brown, Rachel Strahm, John Thomas and Chao too. Thanks for listening! We’ll be back with more from 1995 next week.