UCI settles dozens of fertility suits

The UC Board of Regents has quietly settled a dozen lawsuits stemming from fertility fraud uncovered nearly 15 years ago -- drawing closer to an end a scandal that has dogged UC Irvine and left behind dozens of heartbroken couples.

Shirel and Steve Crawford recently deposited their $675,000 settlement, minus legal fees, but it brought them little peace. In the late 1980s, in the midst of what many consider the country's worst fertility scandal, the Crawfords believe their embryos were given to a woman referred to in documents as "Mrs. S." Mrs. S gave birth to a boy and a girl in two separate pregnancies while Shirel Crawford -- out of money and embryos -- never had a baby.

"I don't think it will ever be over," Shirel Crawford said. "Our children are still out there somewhere. Maybe someday they will find us."

The Crawfords' case was among a dozen settled in recent months for a total of $4.23 million. The payments ranged from $45,000 to the Crawfords' $675,000. In all, the University of California has paid out more than $24 million for 137 separate incidents in which eggs or embryos were either unaccounted for or given to other women without consent. Three cases are still pending.

The two doctors at the center of the malpractice -- Ricardo Asch and Jose Balmaceda -- fled the country and continue to evade criminal prosecution, leaving the university to deal with the civil lawsuits that followed.

The scandal first came to light in 1995 when the Orange County Register reported that the world-renowned fertility doctors at UC Irvine's Center for Reproductive Health had stolen eggs or embryos for years and had given them to other women. The revelation sparked international news coverage, investigations and state hearings and tainted the university, which whistle-blowers said had ignored early warnings and tried to cover up problems.

UC Irvine, in a statement, said, it is "honoring its commitment to treat each claim fairly and on its merits." Officials declined to comment further until the remaining claims are resolved.

"It's heartbreaking stuff, truly. There is no excuse," said attorney Dan Hodes, who represented the couples. "But at the end of the day, the regents accepted reasonable responsibility for what occurred. I'm not saying the settlements were generous. What I am saying is that they were reasonably fair and came after hard negotiations."

Though many of his clients feel a sense of vindication, Hodes said there was also a sense that the medical misconduct -- which dramatically altered some lives -- remains unpunished. "The individual doctors who the evidence suggested were most at fault got off without any recrimination at all," Hodes said.

A federal grand jury indicted both Asch and Balmaceda on mail fraud and tax evasion charges, but they have never stood trial. A third doctor, Sergio Stone, was convicted in 1997 of fraudulently billing insurance companies. He was fined $50,000 and ordered to serve a year of home detention. No evidence linked Stone to the egg thefts.

Shirel Crawford fears that settling nearly all the cases ends any interest in the matter that still brings her to tears.

Crawford is now 50, and her hopes of giving birth to a child faded long ago. Three in vitro attempts failed. Nine years ago, they tried to adopt a daughter, only to have the birth mother decide to keep the child a month after the delivery. Then, seven years ago, they adopted another daughter, Shelby, who Crawford said brings them great happiness.

But their biological children -- now adults -- who the couple believes were born to "Mrs. S" are never far from their minds.

"We had a private investigator looking for them," Crawford said.

"We've been having our attorney try to follow any paper trails any way that they could. It was a dead end. My husband always says that we could be walking down the street, see someone that looks like us and wonder, 'Could that be our child?' Will they come to our door? And our hope is someday we will be blessed with that."



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