IVF Can Be Unpredictable, but Nobody Expects to Wind Up Pregnant with the Wrong Embryo
IVF is an unpredictable and emotionally charged process at the best of times, and the kind of office mix-up that at any normal place of work would result in some mixed up files or a lost stapler could result in impossibly unthinkable situations. Luckily that sort of thing normally seems like the sort of thing confined to TV dramas like Jane the Virgin or Law and Order: SVU, but one woman has written into the New York Times’ ethics columns with an impossible conundrum: What is the ethical thing to do when the IVF clinic accidentally implants someone else’s embryo in your uterus?
The writer told the Ethicist that years ago she was accidentally implanted with another couple’s embryos while they were both undergoing IVF. She said she took a morning-after pill after the mix-up was discovered in an attempt to prevent the pregnancy from taking place, but the Plan B did not work and she became pregnant. She wrote to the Ethicist–philosophy professorÂ Kwame Anthony Appiah–and asked what she should have done. Should she have aborted the fetus, even though both couples involved were trying desperately for a baby? Or should she have carried the baby and given it to the other parents?
The writer seemed to think that her only options were abortion or carrying the fetus to term as a surrogate for the other couple, then giving them the baby. That would have been extremely generous, assuming the other couple even wanted that to happen, but she was trying to have a child and knew that carrying this one would throw off her own efforts by at least a year or more. But Appiah addresses another option, which she didn’t bring up in the letter: She could have kept it.
“Your reference to your â€˜â€˜own family goalsâ€™â€™ suggests that you think you would have been obligated to hand the child over to the genetic parents. I disagree,” Appiah writes. “Perhaps you thought the embryo belonged to them. But as Iâ€™ve said, it isnâ€™t helpful, morally, to think of embryos as property. You would have been entitled to hand the child over (assuming he or she was wanted), and this might have been a generous act. But if you carried the child for nine months, I canâ€™t see that you would have had an automatic obligation to do so.”
Appiah does not specify which option is more “ethical,” and I don’t think there really is an answer to a question this fraught. This situation seems like the stuff of fiction, and it really does mostly come down to what the pregnant woman decided to do. It’s an impossible situation for everyone involved, but in the end the decision really is hers. The other couple couldn’t force her to have an abortion, because it would violate her bodily autonomy, even if it would be impossibly difficult for them to know that another family had their biological child. They also couldn’t force her to carry the fetus to term, for the same reason.
But if she does carry the fetus to term and deliver the baby, what then? Ethically, who are the parents, assuming everyone wants to be? The writer did not sign on to be anybody’s surrogate. Is this, as Appiah suggests, akin to a situation where the wrong patient is given a life-saving kidney and gets to keep it?
Wow. This is impossible. I have no idea what I think a person should do in this situation. It’s just mind-boggling. Unfortunately the letter writer does not say what she actually did in the end, but this is really a situation where there are no clear and good options. Whatever happened, I hope all the parents found a situation everyone could live with. And I hope that includes regular dips in the swimming pool full of money that the negligent IVF clinic had to pay to every single person involved in this case.