Israeli infertility experts investigated for “selling” ovaBMJ 2000; 320 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.320.7247.1425 (Published 27 May 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:1425
Two of Israel's most senior infertility specialists have been put under police investigation for allegedly overstimulating the ovaries of patients in order to produce large numbers of ova, which they then “sold” for treating infertile women in Israel and abroad.
The investigation, which began several months ago, has sent shock waves through the obstetrics specialty and has led to the formation of a health ministry committee of experts to recommend ways to alleviate the shortage of donated ova.
According to Israeli law, no woman may donate spare ova unless she herself is receiving infertility treatment. Aimed at “preventing” sales of eggs for fertilisation treatment, it seems to have the effect of creating a “black market” in ova.
More than 2000 Israeli women are waiting for an egg donation, while only about 100 ova are donated in an average month. Owing to the scandal sparked by the case, many infertility specialists have decided to postpone egg removal and implantation until the situation becomes clear, lengthening the queue even more.
The two doctors named by police so far are Professor Zion Ben-Rafael, the 51 year old head of the gynaecology and obstetrics division at the Rabin Medical Centre-Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, and Dr Ya'akov Ashkenazi, aged 53, a senior staff member of the nearby Rabin Medical Centre-Hasharon Hospital.
Both also have private practices and perform infertility treatment at the private Assuta Hospital and Herzliya Medical Centre. The egg removals were allegedly carried out in the private hospitals, but women with complications of ovarian stimulation were rushed to the Rabin Medical Centre hospitals for emergency treatment, which aroused suspicions.
The Tel Aviv magistrates' court put the two physicians under house arrest so that they could not have access to witnesses. They were allowed to go to their clinics only when patients needed them urgently—and then they were accompanied by a policeman in civilian clothes who made sure they did not speak to relevant patients or staff members. They were each ordered to post $35000 (£22000) bail and inform police of any plans to travel abroad.
A series of newspaper stories over three months ago induced police to investigate claims of “ova thefts.” Some women questioned by police said they were never told that as many as 40 of their eggs were ripened simultaneously with hormones and taken “without permission”;others said they were allegedly asked if they would donate eggs when they were still under the effects of anaesthesia.
Overstimulation of the ovaries can cause women serious harm and even be life threatening. The lawyers of the physicians being investigated said that the charges were “baseless” and resulted from a “lack of understanding of medical procedures” involved in infertility treatment. The doctors “did not endanger anyone but helped save lives and bring about the births of thousands of children,” the lawyers argued.