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The Savages' Wrong Embryo Transfer and What We Can Actually Learn About IVF

The headline on MSNBC read “Woman Implanted with Wrong Embryo,” which begs the response: “Media Distracts with Wrong Headline.” It’s not just the misuse of the word “implant” instead of “transfer,” which overpromises science’s capabilities (and regardless of the you say to-mah-to, I say to-may-to debate we’ve had over the years about improper vocabulary, my stance is that this is important because it is just one more way misinformation about infertility is spread to the general public. Embryos can only be transferred, not implanted, hence why IVF is not a sure thing despite what some people believe when they tell you that “you can always do IVF!”), it’s that once again, the general public isn’t getting a story about what has been happening in clinics across America 364 days this year–what they’re hearing is the one case that happened instead of the thousands of success stories.

My heart goes out to the two couples at the center of this situation. I cannot imagine the position the Savages are in, going through IVF, emotionally focused on creating a life that they would raise and discovering that through someone else’s mistake, they were pregnant, but their two choices were to either terminate or carry to term for another couple. It’s literally impossible to imagine.

Yet I take issue with this thought: “They are telling their story in the hopes that no other couple ever has to go through what they have endured.”

The reality is that telling their story does not prevent human error. This could happen again. Every clinic across America could think about it every second of every day and it could still happen again because humans make mistakes. Even machines make mistakes. It isn’t the happiest thought in the world when you’re trusting your body to a doctor, but prior to this point, clinics never operated in a willy-nilly fashion, leaving unlabeled vials on the counter.

My clinic was merticulous, labeling everything with a number and cross-checking every gamete that exited the body with the owner. My husband had a number on a card he held, the semen sample had a number on it, and they would read off the numbers, over and over and over again, triple checking that even with an IUI, the correct sample was used. And my clinic is not special. This is happening every day in every clinic across America. They have protocols, they have safety nets, they have systems.

And with every safe guard in place, it still happened.

It’s not that I don’t believe that Americans should hear this story and discuss it. By all means, it is newsworthy because it is outside the norm. The problem is that the average American isn’t having that thought drilled into their head. With IVF barely on their radar, they hear yet another tale of IVF gone wrong, treading on the heels of Nadya Suleman. The message they will take away from this is not that IVF is a godsend for millions of Americans (not all of the 7.3 million American diagnosed with infertility will utilize IVF or even IUI, but those who do are thankful that procedures exist that can circumvent medical issues that impede conception), but that once again, IVF is dangerous. This is what y’all get when you go playing G-d and messing with nature.

If I owned the airwaves, I would tell Americans this:

Procedures such as IUI, IVF, and ICSI, are necessities–not choices–for people with certain medical limitations who wish to build their families. That fertility treatments are not evil or selfish or prone to error any moreso than medical procedures such as blood transfusions, organ transplantation, or hernia surgery. When humans are involved, mistakes can happen, as much as we hope and pray that they don’t and have every right to ask for compensation when human error rather than medical realities affect our lives.

That 7.3 million Americans are currently diagnosed with infertility and while it may not be life-threatening, it is certainly lifestyle threatening. Infertility is not caused from waiting too long to procreate or stress or not praying hard enough–infertility is an umbrella term for a series of medical issues that can affect men or women (infertility is about 40% male factor, 40% female factor, with the remaining 20% comprised of a combination of factors or unexplained infertility) who wish to build their family.

And that while other options for family building do exist, it is no one’s place to tell another person how they should build their family any moreso than it would be appropriate for you to decide or even suggest to someone else where they should live, who they should marry, what job they should hold, or any other lifestyle choice. No one enters into treatments lightly, without having researched options and weighed choices.

That there are around 3 million children created via IVF walking around on this earth right now, and that if we’re going to tell the story of the Savages, we need to also balance out the news by reminding the public that in all but a handful of cases, IVF fails not due to human error, but to the body’s error. And that when it succeeds, it creates children who have even gone on to build families of their own.


1 Kim { 09.21.09 at 7:13 pm }

It is funny how so many people can form such strong opinions about things that they no nothing about!

2 areyoukiddingme { 09.21.09 at 7:22 pm }

You could probably get your local Fox affiliate to do a segment (or a series) on infertility. If they'll do this, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOKHlWAp4No they'll do anything! The beauty of Fox is that they offer so many news programs, you could guarantee lots of exposure.

However, I think average Americans realize that only the horror stories make the news. And, I hope the ones who don't realize that are able to discuss the issue with someone who knows.

3 ifcrossroads { 09.21.09 at 7:25 pm }

Amen!!! Brilliantly said (as always!) thanks Mel!


4 Elana Kahn { 09.21.09 at 7:50 pm }

If only everyone could read your blog. *sigh* Seriously, even though I would never wish infertility on anyone, I wish Mrs. Obama would have an experience that would necessitate the President becoming more knowledgeable about infertility and everything that goes with it. Throw in a few people in the Senate & House who also have difficulties and maybe we'll get something done about health coverage…

5 HereWeGoAJen { 09.21.09 at 7:54 pm }

I'd like to order you to kirtsy this, please!

6 Kate { 09.21.09 at 7:55 pm }


I began trying at 28…. I would have my issue (PCOS) had I started at 15. I hate how misunderstood IF is and how sensationalized ART is. Thanks for speaking out. Every voice counts in the fight against fear mongering and misinformation.

7 Busted Tube { 09.21.09 at 7:57 pm }

I share your belief that vocabulary and word choice is very important. I find particularly in the case of IVF and other little understood procedures (at least by the general public). We all know here in the IF blogosphere that the difference between 'implant' and 'transfer' is gigantic, but because others have such a limited understanding it is all the more important that they get clear, accurate information. I wish everyone would read your blog, Mel!

8 caitsmom { 09.21.09 at 8:03 pm }

I agree that careful choices of words should be used. It does mis-inform, even for those of us who thought they knew the terminology.

9 annacyclopediaisworkingonit { 09.21.09 at 8:30 pm }

Absolutely – you must Kirtsy this! As always, you are a voice of sanity and reason and compassion in a sea of media madness.

10 Sunny { 09.21.09 at 8:44 pm }

Brilliantly said, Mel. I agree with you entirely — especially my lack of tolerance for the misuse of the word "embryo" and how it's completely ridiculous that the Savages are speaking out "to prevent this from happening to others." Because how would it? Before the transfer, the couple can ask, "Now are you SURE it's our genetic embryo?"

11 Jendeis { 09.21.09 at 8:47 pm }

Yes, please Kirtsy.

Basically unrelated and all over the place, what are your thoughts on a car magnet? I know that there's one for Infant & Pregnancy Loss; what about a pomegranante ribbon for IF? I'm just feeling the need to do something to get the word out on IF. Saw something on CafePress a long time ago: "IVF – because infertility is not a lifestyle choice."

Also, captcha is "mated". What is Blogger trying to tell me?

12 Kristin { 09.21.09 at 9:09 pm }

Well said Mel!

13 tragicoptimist { 09.21.09 at 9:42 pm }

very well said.

"…in all but a handful of cases, IVF fails not due to human error, but to the body's error. And that when it succeeds, it creates children who have even gone on to build families of their own."

Yes, that.

14 FET Accompli { 09.21.09 at 9:58 pm }

Agreed – hear ye!

15 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 09.21.09 at 10:23 pm }

I trusted my clinics' protocols, which were very thorough, but at the same time, a part of me is really comforted by the fact that I was the only IUI done at the clinic that day (they tried to make me go to the far-away clinic at a time that I absolutely could not go because of work, and I threw a fit, so the nurse at the nearby clinic said she'd just do it herself). There weren't even any other men in the building that day, so I can know with as much certainty as I would if these babies had been conceived through sex that they are the product of our own genes.

Of course, IF treatments aren't the only source of mistakes. When DH's family were visiting me in the hospital, they were surprised at the extensive security measures to get into the mother/baby wing, and I explained about the concerns of babies being stolen as well as mistaken identity. I had to remind them that DH was temporarily switched as a newborn with another baby at the hospital, and that accidents (as well as intentional acts) happen. His parents almost raised some other kid.

16 Circus Princess { 09.22.09 at 12:40 am }

Mel for president!

17 Aurelia { 09.22.09 at 12:50 am }


This story alone might make you feel better. Because it turns out that other kinds of surgery get screwed up and if they do checks, like ask which patient is on the table and which body part to remove, they have fewer deaths! Even though they are supposed to check and recheck. So it's not just IVF.

Medical mistakes are in every area. And people know it.

I do know what you mean about clinics being careful—but I also know that sometimes they do violate regulations and take out two samples of things out of fridges and leave them just for a moment in the wrong place. Like frozen breast milk in NICUs–nope, wish I was joking. True story.

Another one? My RE left his original clinic, the one he didn't run, and started a new one that he controlled, over just that kind of incident.

Everyone got overconfident, figured they were perfect, and bad shit happened. No, not an embryo mix-up, something else that resulted in every embryo withering at the clinic that month. Literally, someone left the ventilation exchange system open in the lab, so outside air could get in, and then opened and closed the doors to the special containers where the embryos were growing to take embryos out and put them back several times. Everyone was supposed to check it, and no one did. Usually fine, but this weekend, someone in the next lab over was using toxic chemicals.

No joke, HUNDREDS of embryos fried into nothing. Patients showed up Monday morning for transfer, and there was nothing. For some people, their very last chance was gone.

And no one ever found out, and there was no media, and everyone just gave all the devastated couples a free IVF cycle and swept it under the rug. (I found out from one couple who told me it all.) My RE left in disgust, and they tried to say they had retrofitted the labs, and it wouldn't happen again, but I still don't trust that place. Never will.

And to this day, some people think that it can't happen, because such in such is so respected and they invented stuff! Bah…

And so a little PR to get the word out that yes, some people will sue, and your clinic better double and triple check or they are fucked and will lose everything–I'm okay with that. I'm sad about the Savages, but I am glad they came forward.

They just might make some people think twice about those double and triple checks.

18 Shelli { 09.22.09 at 5:51 am }

I heard about this story while I was in the shower this morning (a local radio station of male DJ's gave opinion on this story).

I cringe whenever people offer comment about5 something they do not understand. They spew crap and it tickles down to every other "non-informed" person to carry the chain of misinformation.

Most disheartening, one of these folks said "why not just abort the baby and rectify the mistake?"

My head just about exploded.

19 Amy { 09.22.09 at 6:29 am }

Beautifully stated, Mel! Thank you.

20 Mrs. Higrens { 09.22.09 at 6:57 am }

If I still have to correct my husband when he uses "transplant" to mean transfer, how can I have hope that anyone not directly involved in IF can get the terminology correct?

21 Katie { 09.22.09 at 7:24 am }

Well written!!!

22 theclam { 09.22.09 at 7:27 am }

*Stand and applauds* Well said Mel (as always)


23 Geochick { 09.22.09 at 7:33 am }

Well written. I hate that the media can't even bother to get the terminology right. It's not that hard!

24 theclam { 09.22.09 at 7:37 am }

Oh, and that was my offical ICLW comment by the way 😉


25 Heather { 09.22.09 at 7:39 am }

My heart aches for them. I can't imagine the agony of finding out I was FINALLY pregnant – and then that it isn't mine. Or that one of my embryos finally made it – but it is in someone else and they have the option of terminating it. I obviously haven't read the article. I just don't think I can go there this morning.

26 Michelle { 09.22.09 at 7:51 am }

Very nice Mel. I'm with you Heather. My DH and I were watching NBC Sunday night and they teased this story for Monday mornings Today show. I looked at Dh and said "Well guess I won't be watching the Today show tomorrow!".


27 Guera! { 09.22.09 at 8:01 am }

oh. my. I never read the article because I just couldn't bear it but everything you have said makes so much sense. If only they interviewed you as a part of their story!

28 ~Hollie { 09.22.09 at 8:08 am }

I agree whole heartedly in your post. Can I go as far to say I BELIEVE in your POST! I do wish that more people could UNDERSTAND all of this better. I've always been an advocate of the "you don't know what YOU would do unless YOU were in those shoes" policy.

Do I have permission to link this post on my blog? I'd like to put it in the "Posts I like" section. THX

29 IdleMindOfBeth { 09.22.09 at 8:23 am }

And once again, our most-read spokeswoman does our community proud!

Kirtsy, Kirtsy, Kirtsy!

And I really like Jendeis' idea of the car magnet… put it out there just a little further.

30 nh { 09.22.09 at 8:44 am }

Well said. Now if only we could get everyone to read and understand…. like others have said – kirtsy it, please.

31 Calliope { 09.22.09 at 9:35 am }

I HATE when fertility treatments become sensationalized. For every Jon & Kate, every octo-mom, every "wrong embryo" story it creates a thicker and thicker wall between the real world and the rest of the people in the clinic waiting rooms. It is a gut wrenching story and my hear goes out to all involves- including the lab tech, but if this is the ONLY story about IVF that people hear about then it is no wonder that more people are not on board for better medical coverage.

you always say it so well, Mel. THANK YOU

32 meepitonparade { 09.22.09 at 10:33 am }

This story is just amazing, and so sad. I wish people had more of a desire to accurately understand what goes on in the world around them, rather than just cling to whatever pop headline they hear and taking it as fact.

33 MrsSpock { 09.22.09 at 10:35 am }

Errors happen in every area of medicine, and to every medical professional. I'm a nurse, and though my own errors have only been medication ones that have led to no harm, the potential is within us all to make a mistake.

Great post.

34 Shelly { 09.22.09 at 10:39 am }

Umm, can you please find a way to share that with American airwaves?? Please?? You do such a good job of stating our case!

35 Coco { 09.22.09 at 11:33 am }

Goodness, that is a good post! I'm so tired of listening to people on the outside only talk about the negative aspects of fertility treatments!

36 Piccinigirl { 09.22.09 at 1:58 pm }

as always, you say it with such Grace.

Amen, Amen, Amen.

My sons thank you for this post. *hug*

37 TreasureHunter { 09.22.09 at 4:33 pm }

Amen! Agree 100%!!

38 Flutterby918 { 09.22.09 at 8:14 pm }

I think I agree with everything you just said! Nicely put. ICLW

39 Anonymous { 09.23.09 at 7:32 am }

My husband & I did IUI several years ago and despite the protocol of our clinic to check (and recheck and recheck) our information, I was still nervous about the possibility of being inseminated with another man's sperm. We did not conceive in that cycle, but if we had, I know I would have been checking my baby at birth to see if she looked like my husband! Errors do occur. BUT despite my hesitations, it was not an option to NOT do the IUI. I know that even with this IVF horror story, many couples will (and SHOULD) continue with ART procedures. No one would understand unless they faced IF.

40 Iris Waichler { 09.24.09 at 10:25 am }

Thanks for the piece you wrote Melissa. I agree with what you said and how you said it. I am tired of people defining infertility by way of Jon and Kate and the "Octomom". It is important to tell the every day real stories regarding the challenges and triumphs regarding infertility, not just the reality T/V version when things go wrong. People need to continue to be educated, supported, and informed whenever possible to help them on their journeys.

41 Kristie { 09.25.09 at 4:42 am }

What a well-written post!! Kudos to you!

42 battynurse { 09.25.09 at 11:43 pm }

I saw this in the news paper at work the other day and my first thought was Oh Shit. Something else for those who are against fertility treatments to march out in front of the ignorant followers as a great reason why all treatments should be banned.
After reading the article I was impressed by how both sides were handling the whole thing. To me that does give it a bit of an upside but still, it will likely add more negative than positive.
You are so right about how fertility clinics are not immune from mistakes. I know the first clinic I went to do not do nearly as much for "safety" like reading the vial to me or whatever. I don't know what they did in the back before they came to the room for the insemination. I realized this when I transferred to the second clinic and the doctor brought the vial out for me to check etc that it was right. Working in health care though I can say that if the news printed every error that occurred in a hospital people would never go there. There are tons of errors that happen on a daily basis, some found and some never caught that don't necessarily cause harm. Then of course the ones that cause a lot of harm. Mistakes happen all the time.

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