Switched Embryos
What is the “right” answer when embryos are accidentally switched during IVF?

I was kind of surprised by how strongly I reacted to the news on the IVF mistake in Italy. It literally made my stomach hurt. I mentioned my reaction to someone who responded: why would it bother you so much since you’ve adopted kids – what`s the difference. Say what!?!

The Embryo Mix Up

In December 2013 two women, with very similar last names, went in for their embryo transfer after IVF treatment. One woman became pregnant (with twins) and one woman did not. In the third month of the pregnancy, during routine prenatal testing for chromosomal abnormalities it was discovered that the pregnant couple were not the genetic parents of the twins. It is presumed that the embryos were switched at the time of transfer with each woman getting the other woman’s embryos due to confusion over the similar last names.

Both couples were told of the mistake, and both couples said they were the “true” parents and wanted to raise the twins.

What Happened After Birth

Last week, on Aug. 3, the boy-girl twins were born healthy, and the genetic parents went to court to obtain custody.  Under Italian law whoever gives birth to the child is the legal mother. Surrogacy is illegal, and they have no provision in their law for genetic parents not being the birth parents. As was expected, a court ruled against the genetic parents on Aug. 8 finding that the birth parents were the legal parents.

That made my stomach hurt.

What Should Have Happened

I feel for both sets of parents. Both couples desperately want to be parents; the birth parents (and perhaps the genetic parents) have experienced at least one failed IVF treatment in the past. They are both in an awful position through no fault of their own. A horrible mistake happened.

I’m no Solomon, and there is no outcome that would erase the pain of either couple, but is seems to me that the more fair outcome for the parents and, most important, the children would be for the genetic parents to raise the children. The infertility clinic should offer to pay for as many IVF cycles as necessary for the birth parents to get pregnant with their own egg and sperm or with donor egg and/or sperm.

Media Blowing it Out of Proportion

Some in the media are having a heyday:

IVF madhouse strikes again. Another tragic baby mix-up

Contrary to the buzz, IVF mistakes are rare, and there are things patients can ask and do to make them even less common. See Creating a Family’s Top Ten Tips for Avoiding Medical Mistakes, Errors, and Mix Ups in Infertility Treatment or listen to this Creating a Family show: Switched Embryos and Other IVF Errors and How to Avoid Them

How Others Have Handled Switched Embryos

While uncommon, embryos have been mixed up and transferred to the wrong patient during IVF in the past. In a highly publicized 2009 case in the US, an IVF clinic accidentally switched embryos resulting in Carolyn Savage giving birth to a baby boy that was the genetic child of Shannon and Paul Morrells. She relinquished custody to the Morrells at birth.

Postscript to the Savage Case of IVF Mistake

Two years after relinquishing the baby to his genetic parents, the Savages became parents of twin girls born through surrogacy using their remaining embryos. This year Carolyn became pregnant without fertility treatment at age 45. This was a “surprise” pregnancy since they had not been able to conceive any of their five children (after their first) without fertility treatment. Their son is due in November.

Why Adoptive Parents Really Get It

Why someone would think that adoptive parents would not appreciate the distinction between genetic parents and non-genetic parents is beyond me. In my experience, I think the adoption world is more attuned to the realities of non-genetic parenting than the infertility world.

The Italian woman that gave birth to the twins said after the birth:

“We are happy, very happy. Our children are born and they’re well. …No one can take them away.”

She may be right that when they are young no one can legally take them away from her, but the bigger question in my mind is whether her action will someday drive them away. How will she explain her actions to them when they are older? I don’t envy her having to explain that their genetic parents desperately wanted them, but she refused to give them up because she had carried them for nine month and really really wanted to be a mother? Genes aren’t everything, but they aren’t nothing either.

What do you think should have happened?

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Image credit: Kim Hays