IVF Embryo Mix-Up Devastates Families

Filed under: In The News, Weird But True

It sounds like a plot right out of a soap opera -- in fact it was a story line on ABC's "Private Practice" last season. Only to two UK families, this story is anything but fiction.



When parents Debra and Paul decided to have another baby -- they're already mom and dad to a six-year-old son -- they turned again to IVF and found they had one surviving embryo left. Gowned and waiting in the office for the transfer to begin, Debra was stunned to learn that due to "an accident in the lab," their embryo had been destroyed. "We were both rooted to our seats. We were stunned and trembling. We held each other tightly, and sobbed and sobbed," says Debra, who with Paul has chosen not to share their last name.

That accident turned out to be quite complicated. Their embryo was actually transferred into another woman's uterus. That unnamed woman took a morning after pill" to prevent any chance of pregnancy, and in the process two family's hopes of conceiving were dashed. "It was bad enough to be told of an accident in the lab...then to be told that they had had to terminate it...it was our last embryo that had been put in storage and it was the only one that had survived. We just feel as if that's it," the couple tells the Times.

The families were paid £25,000 (or about $40,000 U.S.) in damages, and Debra and Paul say they'll probably use the money to try and have a baby privately. The clinic -- blaming the blunder on "poor lighting" and the fact that it was lunchtime -- says they now limit the number of transfers taking place to prevent errors.

IVF mix-ups like this one are are, but not unheard of -- experts put serious mistakes and "near misses" at about 200 a year.

In 2002, a British couple discovered their two-year-old twins -- conceived through IVF -- were the product of another man's sperm fertilizing the mother's egg. And in 1999, a woman discovered that though she was carrying twins, only one of them was biologically related to her. She eventually turned the baby over to it's biological family, in what had to be a heart-wrenching decision. And in 2001, a doctor who realized he'd made a mistake just minutes after transferring an embryo made the infuriating decision not to tell the mother about his mistake.

Fertility expert Gedis Grudzinskas says that an electronic tagging system -- complete with alarms if a technician makes a mistake -- would all but eliminate mistakes like these. Seems like a good idea to me. After all, putting bar codes on embryos is far less complicated than dealing with the painful and murky situations that arise when a mistake is finally discovered.

Do you think that IVF clinics should be required to have electronic security in place? And how do you think families should deal with embryo mix-ups when they happen?

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