February 24, 2024

Turkey’s IVF “sperm scandal”

Even in Turkey, there have been problems with IVF treatment

After a recent report in BioEdge about a tragic IVF blunder
in Singapore
, Professor Nüket
Örnek Büken contributed this comment about a notorious IVF scandal in Turkey. 

In Turkey, Article 17 of the regulations relating to centres
for assisted reproductive technology specifies that sperm donation is
prohibited. However, those who want to use this procedure can go abroad or
perform it illegally in Turkey. There is no punishment for individuals who
choose this alternative — only for the institutions performing the procedure.
Even though sperm donation is prohibited in Turkey, counselling services are
provided to those who want to use this method in foreign countries.

In spite of this regulation, a notorious infringement
occurred in 2003 in a university hospital of one of the major provinces in
Turkey. Called the “sperm scandal” by the public, the incident was
quite disturbing. A complaint was made in the IVF center of this hospital that
sperm from an obstetrician-professor, a divisional assistant and medical
students had been used for couples who wanted a baby. Furthermore, this
practice had been happening for the previous five years under the physician in

This illegal and unethical practice was brought to light by
a whistle-blowing nurse. The responsible physician and 12 assistant physicians
were accused of using sperm taken from others in IVF procedures and of
assisting and condoning the practice. In the light of the evidence, the judge
sentenced the physician to at least three years imprisonment and made the
following statement: “It has been found that a crime against humanity with
evil intent took place, and this crime has shaken the public’s confidence in
medical science and university hospitals.” He added that no reduction in
the sentence could be allowed.

The following statement was added in accordance with the
53rd article of the Turkish Penal Code (1926): “Until the punishment is
completed, these convicted physicians will not be allowed to be employed by
appointment or selection as a civil servant or any other employment, or use
their rights to vote or any other political rights.” The court gave a
range of other legal penalties, not including imprisonment, against the 12
assistant physicians.

The nurse, who was the most important witness, had to change
her department several times in the hospital. She still continues to work
there, even though she has faced emotional stress for a long time. After this
scandal, access to the operational section of the centre was secured by two
password-controlled doors. Now only a few people who know the code and those
who want to have a baby at the centre and the employees can enter this section.
In addition a written document stating, “this sperm belongs to me” is
requested from sperm donors.

Another interesting matter revealed by this case was that
the couples who had children at this clinic have not consulted the relevant
authorities and filed a complaint. Considering that the genealogy of a child is
legally very important (which is why sperm donation is prohibited), it is
interesting that the families have not sued the clinic. This suggests that the
notion of sperm donation is not as rigid as one might expect in Turkey.

Nüket Örnek Büken (MD, PhD) is a professor in
the department of medical ethics in the Hacettepe University Faculty of
Medicine, in Ankara, Turkey.

Nüket Örnek Büken