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.
Scott Carney is an investigative journalist, his first book about the international trade in human bodies will appear in Harper Collins in 2011, see his updates at redmarkets.com