Please imagine for a moment that you’ve gone through the costly, laborious, and emotionally draining process of in vitro fertilization: stimulating ovaries through hormone injections, retrieving and fertilizing an egg, implanting an embryo. You spend over $100,000 just to finally get pregnant — with twins. You carry those twins for nine months of pregnancy with all of its attendant joys and miseries. Maybe you post an ultrasound on the fridge, throw a baby shower, set up a nursery, and—oh, I don’t know—fall in love? Then you go through the horror show of labor just to bring those babies into the world, only to find that they are not your babies.
Then you give up said babies to their genetic parents. You’ve just played non-consensual surrogate for another couple.
This is the “unimaginable mishap” that allegedly befell an anonymous New York couple, according to a lawsuit alleging medical malpractice and negligence filed against Joshua Berger and Simon Hong, the co-owners of CHA Fertility Clinic. The couple knew something was wrong immediately after birth: Both could-have-been parents are Asian-American and “were ‘shocked’ to find neither baby was of Asian descent,” reports CBS News. Genetic testing was allegedly performed, showing the babies genetically belonged to two other, separate couples. They then gave the babies to those couples.
“They still don’t know what happened to their two embryos that should have been implanted,” reports CBS. What’s more, the couple alleges the clinic “knew about the embryo mix-up and tried to conceal it.”
It’s an allegation that raises complex questions about medical ethics, reproductive rights, and the parameters of parenthood, but here is CBS paraphrasing an IVF expert, saying that this kind of “human error... is not uncommon at IVF facilities.” Ah, how reassuring.
Said expert, Jake Anderson, co-founder of FertilityIQ, a website that attempts to guide people through the IVF process, explains: “It’s this agonizing process to grow embryos,” he said. “And it involves almost over 200 different steps and when you assume this happens to thousands of patients every year within that laboratory, all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of moving parts.”
This story follows many headlines in recent years about IVF “mixups,” from swapped sperm to embryos. (That is to say nothing of dawning awareness around the former practice of “mixing” sperm to improve artificial insemination results, thanks to Dani Shapiro’s recent memoir Inheritance.) In a high-profile 2009 case, Carolyn Savage learned that she was pregnant with another couple’s embryo and “carried the baby to term, before giving him to his biological parents,” reports CBS. She said of the New York lawsuit: “I cannot express how utterly unacceptable this situation is. It is preventable, protocols need to be followed, and they need to be taken seriously.”
As Anderson asks: “Have we become reckless and too careless with people’s most important genetic material and their future happiness?” In this particularly horrifying allegation, it goes without saying: The answer is yes.