Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Worst Case Scenario: True Story of a Wrong Embryo Transfer

Imagine if you will that you are giving IVF one last try. After a grueling month you finally get that dreaded call: Congratulations, you're pregnant! Just as your heart soars, they follow the news with a "but." Oh, and is this a big "but" -- turns out they transferred* the wrong embryos and that this baby to be is not genetically yours (can you hear your heart sinking so fast it hits the floor?). Well that's what happened to the Savages.

After years of trying for another baby and countless miscarriages, Carolyn Savage became pregnant and delivered a healthy baby girl. From that cycle they had some frozen embryos that they saved for a future attempt. After a year, they decided to give it one last try to have another child. And when they thought their dreams had come true, they quickly discovered the unconscionable error their clinic had made.

On the same day, another call had to be made; that one to the Morells, who were happily raising their twin daughters (yes, IVF miracles) and were oblivious that their frozen embryos had been used without their consent.

This story is an amazing one and it re-establishes my belief that there are some exceptional individuals out there, like the Savages. They were faced with the toughest decisions one could possibly face -- deciding to terminate the pregnancy or keep the baby with the understanding that they would have to give the baby back to his/her biological parents. This case covers so many aspects of the world of infertility. By deciding to keep the baby, Carolyn effectively became the gestational carrier for the Morells. But unlike a gestational carrier case (where a woman agrees to carry the baby to term for you because the genetic mother is unable) Carolyn actually wanted a baby. She wasn't getting paid for this, she wasn't doing it as a business arrangement. Out of pure selflessness, Carolyn Savage cared for this baby for 9 months like it was her own and agreed to say goodbye to him on his first day of life.

Let's not forget what the Morells must have been experiencing -- what if Carolyn Savage had decided to terminate the pregnancy? She certainly would have been in the right to do so in light of the heartache she was facing. But what about the Morells' embryo? It's a life after all and what could be their future child. I'm very pro-choice, but after going through IVF and experiencing the attachment you feel to a microscopic embryo, I look at the beginning of life very differently these days. Within those few cells are someone's hopes and dreams of a family.

Logan is now 7 months and loved by both families. And while Shannon Morell was robed of her pregnancy, my heart truly goes out to Carolyn Savage. As the Savages stated during their interview on the "Today Show" back in September (Carolyn was 35 weeks along at the time), the hardest part was still to come: saying goodbye to Logan and coping with the unimaginable loss.

This case also reminded me of a fascinating book I'd read a few years ago -- Everything Conceivable: How the Science of Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Our World -- and more specifically a section that dealt with genetics vs. biology. Recent epigenetics studies suggest that genes are not immutable, that the biological environment of gestation does affect our genetic make-up. So for instance, while an egg-donor mother might not be genetically linked to her baby, she does affect the genetic development of her child. So with that, I hope Carolyn Savage did pass on some of herself to Logan; her strength and generosity can never be understated.

*Please, please, please, do not confuse an embryo transfer with implantation. The former is the procedure during which embryos are put back into your uterus. Implantation is the physical burrowing of embryos/embryo into your lining, where they/it will spend the next 9 months. The media keeps saying "the embryos were implanted by the doctor." I wish doctors knew how to guarantee implantation, but they have no control over that. So, please use the correct terminology: it's embryo TRANSFER.


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