MONTH AFTER MONTH, YEAR AFTER year, for 16 long years, Loretta and Basilio Jorge struggled without success to conceive a child. They endured two miscarriages and the $30,000 financial hit of two in-vitro fertilizations. Then, last December the Jorges, both 36, learned that Loretta's eggs and perhaps Basilio's sperm may have been used by their fertility doctor to impregnate another woman. Now they are waging an unprecedented custody battle for 6-year-old twins that makes King Solomon's dilemma look simple.
Like the Jorges, the woman who gave birth to the children (whose names have been withheld) sought treatment from Dr. Ricardo Asch, a celebrated fertility specialist at the Center for Reproductive Health at the University of California at Irvine (UCI). She and her husband thought their travail had finally ended when, in 1989, she gave birth to twins. Then last month they received a letter from the Jorges' lawyer demanding that the boy and girl undergo genetic testing. "We do not want to unduly disrupt your lives," the letter read without intended irony, "but rather to help facilitate a relationship between my clients and the children." Trembling with rage, the wife told the Orange County Register, "I don't want to talk about it. These were my eggs!"
Twisted as the drama may seem, the Jorge case was a heartache waiting to happen. During the past decade, the number of U.S. fertility clinics has swelled tenfold, to 300, yet the industry has evaded any regulatory oversight. Last May scandal erupted when Asch and two other UCI doctors were accused of stealing eggs and embryos from as many as 100 patients for research or implantation in others. Asch, who has fled to Mexico City, is currently under federal investigation for mail fraud, tax evasion and fertility-drug smuggling, as well as the thefts. Professing his innocence, he told TIME, "I think there were people in charge of setting me up who falsified documents and forged consent forms." Yet his former chief biologist, Teri Ord, testified recently that Asch not only knew of the misappropriations, but ordered them.
Some 40 former patients, many of whom eventually conceived or adopted children, have sued Asch and UCI for monetary damages. So far, only the Jorges are waging a custody battle, a decision they made after their attorney Melanie Blum scoured UCI records to determine the fate of their embryos and eggs. Yet it is not entirely clear what outcome the Jorges seek. Last month Loretta told the Register that if only her eggs were involved, she would press for joint custody; then the twins could shuttle between the two couples, who live in the same middle-class neighborhood. "If this is embryos," she added, meaning if Basilio's sperm were also involved, "definitely 100% I'm going to take those children." But when those remarks provoked public outrage and angry phone calls, Loretta stepped back. "I don't want to take them out of their home," she told TIME. "I just want to be able to see them on the weekends, to travel with them to see my parents and their cousins."
Jane Gorman, another of the Jorges' attorneys, says she will meet this week with the other couple's lawyer, but does not expect a settlement. She also does not expect the UCI fallout to end with the Jorges: already, she says, she has received calls from several other patients interested in seeking custody of children they've never met.