LONDON – It sounds like a dark comedy dreamt up in Hollywood or a dilemma that would push even Solomon's wisdom to its limit – a white mom gives birth to black twins after an in-vitro fertilization blunder.
However, it's a true story that is currently playing out in England's High Court.
Genetic tests revealed July 31 that the white woman is the babies' biological mom, but that her husband was not the father. Apparently, doctors implanted the correct egg into her womb but other doctors used the wrong sperm to fertilize her egg.
Many of the details of the case remain unclear because of a court order against revealing such information. As well, many officials involved with the affair and other groups and individuals who could be affected by it have been unwilling to make public comments because of the sensitivity of the issue.
However, the British press has reported that the children are at least 2 years old. The case was brought to the High Court in order to secure a ruling on who has a right to their custody should the genetic father and his wife ever try to gain custody.
Both white and black couples undergo in-vitro fertilization procedures at the same clinic. None of the parties involved in the case can be identified, according to British law.
The London Daily Mail reported Aug. 1 that it is not known whether both couples will contest custody, but both are expected to sue the clinic where the blunder occurred.
“The circumstances of this case raise difficult issues relating to the privacy of both families and medical confidentiality,” said High Court Family Division President Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the judge in the case.
Indeed, it raises several issues: Is the woman who supplied the egg or the one who supplied the womb the real mother? (The law says the real mother is the woman who supplied the womb.) What about the man who supplied the sperm? How much does it count that the white couple has been raising the children since their birth? Would it be right to separate the children from people they know as their parents to “correct” the original error?
The government in the United Kingdom has already launched an investigation to find out the reason for the mix-up, which occurred at a fertility clinic at a state-funded hospital.
An unnamed source at the state-funded hospital in Britain told the London Sun: “Great steps have been taken to ensure that this sort of thing never happens. It must be a one-in-a-million chance. The big problem now is, who are the real parents of the twins?”
In-vitro fertilization is the creation of human embryos by mixing sperm and ova in a laboratory. Conceived embryos are then transferred to the womb of the woman who is to carry the child.
More embryos are routinely created than needed, and those not transferred to the womb may be sold, frozen or destroyed. In Britain it is legal to experiment on these embryos for up to two weeks after fertilization – work scrutinized by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Catholic teaching on IVF or the use of surrogate parents is stated unequivocally in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. ... They betray the spouses' ‘right to become a father and a mother only through each other.’ [Donum Vitae, 1, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987]” (No. 2376).
The Catechism continues: “Techniques involving only the married couple ... are perhaps less reprehensible, yet remain morally unacceptable. They dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act. The act that brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that ‘entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person.’ [Donum Vitae, 5]” (No. 2377).
Dr. Helen Watt, director of the Linacre Center, the bioethics institute owned by the British and Irish bishops, said because IVF is not the normal way of conceiving a child it is inevitable that complex ethical problems such as the current mix-up would arise.
Such teaching cuts no ice with supporters of IVF, according to a spokeswoman for CHILD, an organization supporting infertile parents.
“For some couples the only option to pursue their dream of having a child is IVF treatment,” she said.
“Who are we to turn to these parents and tell them IVF is wrong?” asked the spokeswoman, who declined to give her name.
The case mirrors a similar bungle at the Central Park Medical Services fertility clinic in Manhattan, which saw Donna Fasano give birth in 1998 to a black couple's embryo as well as her own, ensuring she gave birth to one black twin and a white twin.
After legal action by the other couple, Robert Rogers and Deborah Perry-Rogers, a court awarded one twin to each couple.
According to Watt, however, the very fact that a court is now treating the children as disputed property shows the shift in thinking procedures such as IVF have created.
“The Church teaches that it is morally wrong for a child to be conceived as if it were a product,” she said. “If a child is conceived like a product it will be treated like a product. ‘If we don't like the embryo we produced we can change it,’ [people think]. This creates ‘quality control,’ which leads to the discarding of human embryos.”
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.