Switched Before And After Birth–Embryo Mix-ups

Every scientific development has an Achilles’ heel attached. The problem is humans must carry out whatever the new process or technique is. But humans are inherently imperfect and prone to error. Some errors, like mixing up embryos in a lab, cause deep and permanent harm. Sadly, such mistakes during IVF treatment are wreaking havoc in people’s lives.

Exactly what is going wrong in fertility clinics resulting in the highly technical term of “mix-up?” The wrong embryos are transferred to the wrong uterus, i.e., a woman may be carrying a child that is not hers biologically. A pregnancy has been created that was not intended. It isn’t a true unplanned pregnancy, because pregnancy was indeed the ultimate goal; however, it wasn’t the pregnancy aimed for. A baby and heartbreak results.

Consider this unfortunately true story. Alexander and Daphna Cardinale, unsuccessfully tried to have a second child for several years. Ultimately, they decided to pursue IVF to achieve their dream of having another baby. But their dream took a nightmarish turn when Daphna gave birth to a baby girl in a Los Angeles hospital in September 2019. Alexander, who was in the delivery room, knew something was wrong the moment he laid eyes on the newborn. The child looked nothing like him or his wife. But they fell in love with the baby as did their 5 year old daughter.

For awhile the couple tried to brush the difference in looks off. Perhaps the child looked like some (distant) relative rather than them. But nagging doubts continued, so Daphna brought home a DNA test kit in November 2019. She and her husband learned their baby, then around two months old, was not genetically related to either of them. OOPS! The couple’s embryos had been mixed up with those of another couple. Daphna carried, gave birth to, and cared for a child who was not hers. That child’s embryo had mistakenly been switched prior to her birth.

So whose baby did this couple have? Additional DNA testing was conducted after investigation by the fertility clinic. (Not sure why anyone would trust a clinic who couldn’t even keep up with embryos to investigate, but I digress.) The Cardinales found out on Christmas Eve 2019 that they had given birth to the child of another couple who in turn had given birth to the Cardinales’ biological daughter. The embryos of the two couples had been switched. Not so Merry Christmas!

What do you do when you are raising a baby you have birthed and fallen in love with but she’s not your biological child and your own biological daughter is being raised by a non-related couple? The situation was an emotional nightmare, particularly for the Cardinales’ older daughter who, smitten with her baby sister, begged her parents not to switch babies with the other couple. Could anyone possibly win in this horrifying situation? A second switch then occurred in the lives of these baby girls. In January 2020, a few months after their birth, they were switched to the custody of their biological parents.

Kudos to the two couples who rose above unimaginable emotional hell to create a loving plan. They blended families and bonded. These families spend holidays and birthdays together. While neither is raising the child they birthed, each is still involved in that child’s life in a consistent and cooperative way.

Nevertheless, emotional scars and issues remain. In an effort to prevent anything similar happening to other couples already struggling with childbearing issues, Alexander and Daphna sued the fertility clinic, the California Center for Reproductive Health, and its owner, Dr. Eliran Mor. No amount of money recovered will ever heal the broken hearts experienced by both couples in this sad story. But if being careful simply because human lives are literally hanging in the balance isn’t sufficient for clinic personnel, then the threat of economic consequences should spur them to pay more attention.

While no embryo mix-up situation can ever be said to end “happily,” at least the Cardinales made the best of a bad situation and connected with the other family. The same cannot be said of an earlier case in New York. In 1998, a white woman gave birth to twins, one white and one black. To no one’s surprise, the black child was not related to this woman or her husband. Instead, he was related to a black couple, also clients of the fertility clinic; the clinic (oops!) had made a mistake. Both couples sued for custody of the child in a contentious case. In the end, the judge sided with the genetic parents. A decision like King Solomon might have issued was apparently not utilized.

In another New York case, an Asian couple ended up with empty arms as well as an empty womb. The wife gave birth to another couple’s twin boys (who were clearly not Asian) and were required to return them to their biological parents. No one has any idea what happened to the Asian couple’s embryos. Consequently, the bereft couple sued the co-owners of CHA Fertility Center for this “unimaginable mishap.” (Just me, but “mishap” seems pretty innocuous. How about screw-up?)

With over 1 million babies having been born in the U.S. from IVF or similar technologies, the danger of “mix-ups” is real and scary. The painstaking IVF process involves some 200 steps to grow embryos, which are developing humans in the very early stages after fertilization. That lengthy process provides ample opportunity for mistakes to be made.

The personal cost of embryo mix-ups is bad enough, but the IVF process also opens the door for difficult legal issues to be addressed. With in vitro fertilization (commonly referred to as “IVF”), eggs are extracted, sperm is retrieved, eggs and sperm are manually combined in a lab dish, and embryos are transferred to a woman’s uterus. This process allows motherly functions to be divided between two different women, i.e., one supplies the egg (the genetic material) while the other carries the child. Who is the mother for legal purposes when a woman is implanted with another woman’s fertilized egg?

Clearly, scientific progress can be a double-edged sword as illustrated by embryo mix-up stories. Things can be wonderful if IVF treatment results in a baby for the right couple. It can be hell on earth if embryos are lost or given to the wrong couple. And we thought the biggest question people need to ask when a baby is born is “It is a boy or a girl?” Perhaps we should start with the question, “Is it your child?”

WONDER-ing Woman:

Would stricter regulation of fertility clinics overcome the possibility of human error in the IVF process? How do you define a mother? Is she the carrier of the baby or the genetic source? Do you know anyone who has utilized the IVF process? What was their assessment of its risks and benefits?