By Poly Pantelides
AROUND 40 Israeli couples are asking for their harvested eggs and embryos, seized from a fertilisation clinic more than three years ago after Cypriot authorities shut it down.
The couples were all clients of the International IVF & PGD Centre in Larnaca’s Zygi village. In May 2010 authorities seized the clinic’s embryos and gametes – eggs and sperm – that are now stored at Nicosia General Hospital pending legal action against the clinic. The abandoned clinic, known locally as Petra House or Petra Clinic, was being investigated in connection with trafficking in human eggs after three Ukrainian women who were working in Cyprus testified to police they had sold their eggs.
The health ministry’s position is that all tissues and cells were confiscated because the clinic could not produce any records. The law requires clinics to “provide traceability for the tissues and cells from donor to recipient and thus ensure for [sic] the health and safety of the recipient and tissues and cells used in clinical applications,” the health ministry’s chief inspector for Tissue and Cell Establishments, Carolina Stylianou said in 2011.
She was responding in writing to a request by Ofra Balaban who chairs Israel’s Patient Fertility Association (CHEN). Balaban has been trying to convince authorities to allow the transfer of the biological material belonging to 40 Israeli couples to an alternative clinic in Cyprus. The health ministry has not been given the records by the former officials at the Petra clinic and will not release any tissues or cells until it does or else told otherwise. “The problem is that time is running out and time is the crucial factor,” Balaban told the Cyprus Mail during a telephone interview.
Vered Eloul Masluk and her partner, Gamar, know where their embryos came from. The sperm came from Israel where the couple lives and the eggs came from Gamar. They did not sell or buy any eggs.
Vered has sent several emails to the current and former health ministers and to Stylianou, and they have been in touch with the embassy of Israel in Cyprus. Responses have been vague.
This March, Stylianou told Vered the ministry of health had officially requested information on the case from the attorney-general’s office. “As soon as information is available to us, I will contact you with more details,” Stylianou told Vered. Having had enough and now considering legal action as a last resort, the couple got in touch with the Cypriot press.
After years of trying, Vered and Gamar managed to have a girl in Israel using the same sperm with which they fertilized Gamar’s eggs in Cyprus. Their baby is now over three years old but both women are past the landmark age of 40. “We’ve tried several times in Israel [but] my partner is 42 now… she’s having problems getting pregnant using her own eggs.”
But their embryos are still in Cyprus and they really want their children to have the same genetic profile. To begin with, Cyprus was a Plan B. As Israeli lawmakers figured out the nitty gritty of egg donation, gay couples and conflicting laws, Vered and Gamar wanted to hedge their bets by parallel procedures in Cyprus. When they came to Cyprus in August 2009, Vered was already 42. Her doctor told her she could not get pregnant with her own eggs. While waiting to see whether Vered could use Gamar’s eggs in Israel, they sought help at the Petra Clinic which was well known in Israel. Seven frozen embryos would have to stay in Cyprus. “We knew we would return,” Vered said.
In theory, the embryos can be kept in storage indefinitely and age is not the only indicator when it comes to deciding whether a woman is fit to get pregnant. But Gamar and Vered know from their doctors and from years of trying that they are running out of time.
Vered and Gamar are not the only couple who worked around the legal restrictions of their country’s fertility laws by coming to Cyprus. Many clinics in Cyprus are reputable and legitimate. Others still, fudge the boundaries between selling eggs which is illegal, and getting compensation for voluntary donation of human eggs for which compensation for expenses is allowed in Cyprus. Parliament has been debating the moral dimensions of medically assisted reproduction for years, and has not yet agreed on legislation. “Our embryos are being kept hostage and are used as evidence in an endless legal process, with no formal charges against the clinic,” Vered said. Legal services would not comment on the case yesterday.