25 September 2009

Embryo mix-up at fertility clinic

Embryo mix-ups are extremely rare. In those few instances, they've degenerated into custody battles, ugly lawsuits and at least one abortion. But not this time.


Carolyn Savage didn't know what to think, what to say, where to look as the ultrasound wand glided over her belly. It was supposed to be her baby inside. Not someone else's.

Yet here she was in her doctor's office with the baby's biological mother, both brought together by a terrible error at a fertility clinic. A doctor, they said, had given Savage the wrong embryo, and now she was carrying the other woman's child.

"The wand is on my abdomen and the technician's talking to someone else: 'There's your baby's nose. There's your baby's head,"' she said. "It was surreal."

Custody battles and lawsuits
Embryo mix-ups at fertility clinics are extremely rare. In those few instances, they've degenerated into custody battles, ugly lawsuits and at least one abortion. But not this time. Savage and her husband decided that the right thing - the only thing - to do was to give the baby to the biological parents.

"This was someone else's child," she told The Associated Press. "We didn't know who it was. We didn't know if they didn't have children or if this was their last chance for a child."

"We knew if our child was out there, we'd go to the ends of the earth to get our child back," she said.

Birth approaching
Savage, 40, is due to give birth to a boy within the next two weeks via cesarean section. When it happens, biological parents Paul and Shannon Morell, of Michigan, will be nearby, waiting to meet their son. "How do you thank somebody for what they've done?" Shannon Morell said. "I could say thank you a million different ways."

The Savages say the fertility clinic transferred the wrong frozen embryo to Carolyn's womb in early February. Ten days later, Sean Savage got a call from a doctor saying his wife was pregnant with someone else's child.

"By God's grace, there was never a moment where we thought we were going to have another baby of our own," Carolyn Savage said.

The doctor told them they could abort, but the couple didn't consider that a viable option. "It wasn't even something we had to discuss," said Sean Savage, 39.

Clinic accept responsibility
The Savages won't reveal the name of the fertility clinic, saying only that it's not in Ohio. They have hired attorneys who say they are working to make sure the clinic will accept full responsibility.

The Morells, who live north of Detroit, learned of the mistake a day after the Savages. They were just about to start the process of having another baby with their last embryos when the clinic called. The two couples knew nothing about each other. Shannon Morell feared that the pregnant woman would choose abortion, ending their chance to give their 2-year-old twin girls a sibling. "I didn't think she'd want to carry the baby to term," Shannon said. "I felt helpless."

A few days passed before they learned that the Savages were not only willing to continue with the pregnancy, but also to hand over the baby without hesitation.

In the first few weeks, the Savages sent e-mail updates after every doctor's visit. The couples finally met about three months into the pregnancy. They shook hands, held back tears and began to form a bond. Phone calls followed.

Unsure how many affected
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine doesn't track how many women have been given the wrong embryos, said Eleanor Nicoll, a spokeswoman. Only a few cases have popped up the past decade or so.

A California woman was awarded $1 million in 2004 to settle a lawsuit against a fertility specialist who accidentally gave her the wrong embryos and hid the mistake until her baby was 10 months old.

A white New York woman gave birth to a black couple's baby in 1998 after an embryo mix-up that set off a two-year court fight between the couples' over visitation rights. And just this year, a Japanese woman aborted her pregnancy after she was told there had been a mistake at a government-run hospital.

Each fertility clinic has its own system for identifying and tracking embryos. Most patients get an identification number that also is kept with the embryos while they are stored. Names are double-checked. So are the numbers.

Situation handled with care
The Savages and the Morells say they have not been told what exactly went wrong at their clinic.

Neither family is sure what will happen after the baby is handed over to the Morells. They plan on approaching it like they have so far - with caution and care - making sure not to cause any more pain.

Carolyn Savage won't have another chance to carry her own baby because of her age and difficulties during her earlier pregnancies. She and her husband plan to hire a surrogate and try again for a fourth child.

The Morells don't have a name picked out for their son and aren't likely to make it public. His mom doesn't want him to be known as the baby who got switched at the clinic. She wants to tell him about that herself. And she wonders if someday he'll want to meet the woman who gave birth to him.

Carolyn Savage said she knows she'll always think about him, and Shannon Morell plans to send the Savages updates as the baby grows. "We'll always have a bond," she said. - (John Seewer/Sapa-AP, September 2009)

Read more:
Octuplets shock fertility experts
Pregnancy Centre


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