The impossible dilemma of an embryo mix-up

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Getty/Oliver Strewe

A hospital mix-up last January forced would-be mom Carolyn Savage and her husband Sean to make a heartrending decision. Ten days after the Savages went to a fertility clinic to have embryos transferred in hopes of conceiving, they got a devastating phone call. Savage had successfully gotten pregnant, but the baby wasn’t hers—the embryo belonged to Detroit-based couple Paul and Shannon Morell.

The Savages were stricken. “It was such a nightmare and, in a way, I felt violated,” Carolyn Savage told CNN last week. Yet what had the potential to be a scarring and devastating turn of events ended up forging an incredible, if unlikely, bond between two families. Savage decided not to abort the fetus, and to give the biological parents the baby.

Last Friday, that baby was born, and by Saturday, his biological parents were getting to know their new son. Speaking to the Associated Press about Savage’s decision to carry their son for them after unknowingly becoming a surrogate, they said, “We will be eternally grateful for his guardian angel.”

While this embryo mix-up has a happy ending, that may not be the case for the possible hundreds of people affected by the mislabeling of dozens of frozen embryos at a New Orleans hospital. Doctors are now scrambling and offering DNA tests as a partial solution, but they are also bracing hopeful couples for the reality that some embryos may be lost.

With the increasing use of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and other emerging fertility treatments it is perhaps inevitable that there will be corresponding increases in mistakes. According to a U.K. fertility specialist interviewed by the Telegraph, out of 52,000 IVF treatment cycles in Britain last year, there were 182 mistakes. Of those, just eight were considered serious mistakes by the fertility treatment oversight agency, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Two were actually mix-ups.

Of course, it is important to stress that errors in fertility treatment remain very very low, but no matter how infrequent, when mistakes do happen they are inevitably amplified by the enormity of what is at stake.

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