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Wilson Signs Bill Making Theft of Human Eggs a Crime

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to the UC Irvine fertility clinic scandal, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Wednesday making it a crime to steal human eggs and requiring written approval of donors before embryos, sperm and reproductive materials can be harvested.

The measures by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame) mark the first effort by the state to rein in the burgeoning field of reproductive medicine.

Both bills grew out of the disturbing egg-swapping scandal that began unfolding last year in Orange County.

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Scores of families have alleged that, over the last decade, three UCI doctors at fertility clinics in Orange and Garden Grove and at UC San Diego stole eggs and embryos from patients and implanted them in others, some of whom gave birth. More than 80 lawsuits have been filed in the scandal.

The scandal continues to impose “terrible strains upon all those involved,” Wilson said. “These bills provide safeguards. . . . Couples seeking fertility assistance must be free from fear that their personal reproductive tissues are being hijacked inappropriately.”

Hayden’s measure would outlaw the intentional transfer of eggs, sperm or embryos without written consent from donors and recipients. Under the measure, convicted violators will face up to five years in state prison and fines up to $50,000.

Law enforcement authorities and legislators had complained that without a specific statute, it was difficult to prosecute theft of human eggs. Existing laws did not directly apply because the eggs cannot be assigned monetary value.

The bill “will hopefully deter this kind of medical wrongdoing in the future,” Hayden said. “And maybe this will provide some measure of consolation for those in Irvine.”

Speier’s measure requires written permission from donors before a doctor may harvest and transfer reproductive materials such as eggs, embryos and sperm to other patients. Physicians will face possible loss of their medical licenses for “unprofessional conduct” if they do not obtain consent. A second violation imposes a $1,000 to $5,000 civil penalty.

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Both bills become law Jan. 1.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Debra Krahel, a former senior associate administrator at UCI Medical Center who helped pry the lid off the scandal. “I don’t know that these will ultimately be enough to keep pace with our ever-changing biotech world, but it’s a start, and it sends a strong message to physicians and practitioners.”

The three implicated physicians--Ricardo H. Asch, Jose P. Balmaceda and Sergio C. Stone--have denied wrongdoing. Scores of former patients have served lawsuits against UC Irvine and others involved. The scandal also includes allegations of financial wrongdoing, insurance fraud, use of an unauthorized fertility drug and research misconduct.

Stone, who along with Balmaceda faces 30 criminal counts of insurance fraud, is scheduled for trial Jan. 21. Balmaceda sold his Orange County home and returned to his native Chile. It remains uncertain whether he will return to answer charges. Asch, who also sold his house and now lives in Mexico, has not been charged with a crime.

Hayden, however, expressed concern that Asch could be continuing egg-swapping south of the border. He hopes that other states, the federal government and other nations craft similar laws “to criminalize this behavior so it isn’t just exported.”

He also said California’s medical board regulators should work to draft tougher guidelines for the fertility industry.

But in the end the onus falls on patients to “be extremely aware they are entering uncharted territory” when they seek cutting-edge fertility help, Hayden said. “They need to realize that they’re customers being drawn into a business practice.”

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