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Assisted Reproduction

Disturbing Account About Ukranian Egg Donors

The Ukraine has been in the news lately as a result of the revelations that an IVF clinic there was responsible for transferring embryos into “surrogates” who were being used in an international baby selling ring. My colleague, Amy Demma, was kind enough to forward me this story from last year:

Until the summer of 2010 when police raided the Petra Fertility Clinic outside of Limassol, Cyprus, they posted a list of available donors on their website. “No. 17P, Ukrainian, Height 175, Weight 59, Blood type B+, Hair color: chestnut, Eye color: brown, Education: University, Profession: artist, age: 23; date of arrival: Feb-2-10; estimated aspiration date: feb 05-07.”

The website, which appeared in English, Spanish, Italian and Russian, beckoned foreign fertility tourists to buy eggs from women who are flown in specially for egg harvesting. Every month another crop of ten arrived for their stays’ at the clinic. The women were recruited through a network of fertility clinics and newspaper advertisements in the former Soviet bloc and offered about $500 for their eggs. The sum would have dwarfed their monthly income. Neither the donor nor the customer came from Cyprus; the island nation was simply used as a legal haven for an otherwise illegal transaction to take place.

The clinic, which is owned by the Chicago-based Reproductive Genetics Institute, Inc., has come under fire on several occasions for violating even the lax Cypriot medical guidelines. The allegations include operating a fertility clinic without a license, paying donors coercive sums, performing non-medically necessary sex selection, and tax evasion. For several years the Cypriot Ministry of Health has been running an investigation specifically targeting the Petra Clinic, however, ministry officials were unable to provide details.

I first heard about the Petra Health Clinic from local Cypriot doctors who believed that dangerous conditions on its site could lead to stricter regulation of all clinics on the island. An article that appeared in the Observer in 2006 claimed that egg donors were being routinely hyper-stimulated to produce more eggs and that batches of up to 60 were routine and split up between multiple recipients. Most doctors consider more than 14 eggs dangerous territory.

Embryologist Savvas Koundouros who works in a nearby clinic says that he has seen Ukrainian patients from the Petra clinic on death’s door, hospitalized in the capital city of Nicosia. “They get them sick and the ship them home so doctors in the Ukraine can deal with them,” he says.

I put off visiting the Petra Fertility Clinic for several days as I set about discovering more about the clinic’s international links. My first two attempts to arrange a meeting with the clinic’s director were rebuffed, saying that the clinic would not allow journalists after several “negative” interactions. Then, two days before showing up on their doorstep with a recorder and notepad, Oleg Verlinsky, CEO of RGI called me on my cell phone.

He told me that the Cyprus clinic only conducts egg transfers in rare cases of genetic disorders, and that the clinic’s primary focus is to treat the rare genetic blood disorder Thalassemia. When I pointed out that the Cyprus website does not even mention the word thalassemia anywhere in its over 260 pages of text, but devoted almost the entire site to egg donation and surrogacy he said that the website was in the midst of an update.

Eventually admitting that the clinic does conduct egg donations, I asked about the donors flown in from the Ukraine. “We have contracts with different centers in the world that have donors available. And it is easier to fly people from Ukraine to Cyprus than to Chicago. It is cost effective. It is just where the donors are and where they are available,” he said. When I asked if I could visit the clinic he denied my request, saying that donor confidentiality would be at risk if I showed up.

Two days later I drove a rented Toyota down the winding Cyprus coastal roads. As the deep blue Mediterranean sea jumped out behind palm trees and fish restaurants I was able to make out the dilapidated form of a granite house with signs in Greek and English that read “Preimplantation Genetic Diagnostic Centre”. Broken pots, dried leaves and clutter fill up the semi-circular driveway and a guard dog eyed me warily as I approached the wrought iron gate.

I knocked on the office door and was directed to meet Galina Ivanovina, the clinic’s Russian administrator who proceeded to contradict every statement made by her CEO just two days before. The clinic has only preformed 50 thalassemia treatments since its founding in 1996, and offers egg donation to foreign patients, mostly Israelis, Americans, Spaniards and Italians who come here because egg donation is legal and cheap. She said that the Ukrainian and Russian donors who fly in “do it for economic reasons, nothing else.” Indeed, to make extra money, the clinic will routinely splits batches between multiple customers.

Though she bristles against the allegations of over-harvesting “It is a lie about over-harvesting, we would never do that. No doctor would endanger patients’ health [for] that reason.”

The one case she admits about hyper-stimulation she says “was a shock and we sent her directly to a clinic in Nicosia for treatment.”

Flying donors across international boundaries to meet third-party recipients is a new innovation in tissue tourism, as it separates the payments and fallout the medical treatments across three different international jurisdictions. At best, it opens up a hole for questionable ethical practices, at worst it could put people’s lives in danger as doctors have every financial inventive to over-harvest and hyper-stimulate egg sellers.

Six months after I visited the clinic, police intercepted a group of Russian and Ukrainian egg donors at the airport and brought them in for questioning. Within days the Ministry of Health seized all of the frozen embryos at the Petra clinic and took hold of the clinic’s records. While no word on formal charges has yet come up, the clinic immediately took down its website and ceased all operations.

Discussion

4 comments for “Disturbing Account About Ukranian Egg Donors”

  • Dominique M

    We heard few cases from french infertile couples of fertility clinics in Ukrain (and India) that have substituted alternate donor sperm and eggs when the parents’ genetic material turned out not to be viable, or declared fake pregnancies in order to use the embryos for other applications.

    Other voices, including US government, are sharing the same concerns :

    http://www.travel.state.gov/law/citizenship/citizenship_5177.html

    “The Department is aware of cases of foreign fertility clinics that have substituted alternate donor sperm and eggs when the U.S. parents’ genetic material turned out not to be viable.”

    http://en.surrogacy-ukraine.com/surrogacy-agencies.php

    “We regularly receive complaints from foreigners regarding scams involving surrogacy. Numerous foreigners have lost money to so called «surrogacy agencies» and individuals that claimed they could arrange for surrogacy services for comparatively low prices. […] Typically, the Ukrainian correspondent asks the foreigner to send money or credit card information for living expenses, travel expenses, or medical costs for the surrogate and then disappears or informs that the surrogate lost the pregnancy. It is not uncommon for foreigners to become victims of mistreatment and extortion by these criminal «agencies» after the pregnancy is confirmed. Sometimes even some medical doctors from reproduction clinics are also engaged in their criminal activities.

    […] If you are informed that the surrogate gets pregnant, always ask for the original reports about her health with her name on it. It would be helpful in the court if she somehow «loses» her false pregnancy.

    And of course always ask for an independent DNA test to prove that the child is really yours — it’s a wide-spread scam to pass off some stolen baby or a child who has been «refused» immediately after delivery by some adolescent or low-class mother as intended parents’ after a false surrogate’s pregnancy.”

  • Brahmaramba Karra

    In most of the countries a surrogacy is legal and surrogacy treatment is very helpful to the couple that those who are unable to conceive the baby. In ukraine surrogacy treatment is legal and surrogacy clinics will provide best facilities with well experienced doctors in affordable cost.

    http://ukrainesurrogacycentre.com

  • Jessica

    I’d like to thank a lot for this article. I want to say it is extremely informative and useful for those ones who want or need to use the ART medicine. My husband’s best friend had a son through surrogacy. They we found Ukrainian biotexcom Centre. The price pleasantly surprised. And they paid only 30 thousand euros for the surrogacy program. It is important to note, this price included accommodation, meals, transfers, meeting at the airport and all medical procedures. And not a penny more! After the first attempt their surrogate mother got pregnant. In addition, after delivery, clinic’s manager set a question with documents at rest. Everything was done completely legally and without nerves, negative emotions and bribes. They left Ukraine at the end of the program with no problems and did all the paperwork for the child easily. Today they looked so happy as a parents!

  • Jessica

    As far as I know, now in Europe the leader in this field is Ukrainian clinic Biotexcom. It is so popular because in Ukraine many healthy women who are ready to become donors or to bear a child for somebody. I know cos my friend used service of it. As egg donation and surrogacy is widely popular. All over the globe there are many women who work in this sphere. For some of them it`s a chance to earn money for their poor families. This practice is popular in backward countries. For many women it`s a chance to help somebody to change his life. They give them the opportunity to become happy, give a sense of life. And I can say for sure that these people who help infertile women and men to have healthy children must be blessed but not accused. And I want to note that surrogate mother writes a special certificate that has no rights and obligations concerning the child she gives birth. She isn’t connected with child genetically. From the first day of the program she understands that it’s just a program and child isn’t hers. So surrogacy and egg donation is a lifesaving issue. And only those ones who went through it or need it will understand.

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