For couples struggling to have a family, the development of assisted reproduction techniques like in vitro fertilization (IVF) decades ago seemed like a lifeline and a solution to the problem of infertility. But is it? While it may help some people start their family, that’s not always the case as strange things can happen when life begins in a Petri dish instead of in the womb. 

Earlier this week, the problem with fertility treatments became wildly evident after a couple filed suit over a devastating fertility mix-up that resulted in a woman giving birth to twin boys that were not biologically related to her or her husband. What’s even more surprising, and concerning, is that the boys weren’t even related to each other. Each child belonged to a different couple at the same clinic, who were all implanted with embryos on the same day. So, in total, three couples and two babies were affected by this error. 

What perhaps makes the situation even more disturbing is that the clinic blatantly lied to the pregnant couple about the sex of the preborn babies. At a prenatal ultrasound appointment, they were told that they were expecting twin boys, which should’ve been impossible since the couple had selected two female embryos for implantation. Although the couple did raise the alarm, the clinic assured them that they were expecting girls. To say that they were shocked to have boys would be an understatement.

Since the children were biologically related to two other couples, the birth parents had to give up custody, which they didn’t want to do. In fact, they took care of both boys for about 6 weeks before a judge ruled in favor of the genetic parents and had to give up custody. The birth couple’s original embryos were likely placed inside another woman’s womb and didn’t take or were somehow lost. It’s unclear if they’ll have a second chance or other options. They’re also out $100,000.

Now two of the three couples have, understandably, sued the fertility clinic, CHA Health Systems, for the devastating failure to ensure that the correct embryos were implanted in the right woman. As the couple who gave birth to the twins shared in the lawsuit, they have experienced “permanent emotional injuries from which they will not recover.”

The couple’s suffering is completely understandable. As a woman, I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to struggle with infertility, go through fertility treatments, find out that you’re pregnant only to give birth to children that are not yours. While those babies were in her womb, she was their mother and likely bonded immensely with her unborn children, as they bonded with her. To have them taken away would be extremely traumatic for everyone involved. 

This case may seem extreme, but it isn’t unheard of for mistakes this grave to occur in the fertility industry.

Science may have been given us the ability to start or expand the size of our families, but it should be approached with extreme caution. According to The Atlantic, the couples had their embryo transfers on the same day, and that could mean that the birth couple’s embryos, their potential children, are gone.

That a mistake happened is not surprising to IVF expert, Jake Anderson. He explained in an interview with CBS that the process of creating embryos involves over “200 different steps.” With a fertility clinic managing the embryos of potentially thousands of patients it is easy to see where things can take a wrong turn and mistakes can be made. But when it comes to human life, mistakes can have devastating consequences.

A similar situation also happened in 2009, when a woman gave birth to someone else’s child after a decade of fertility struggles. She gave up custody of the baby to the biological mother. Other incidents that have made the news includes a lesbian identified couple who ended up with a biracial child after the clinic made a mistake and mixed up two donor sperm profiles. There are also parents finding out years later that the sperm donor they were sold is not the one that the clinic used. Sometimes it was a simple mistake, and other times it was because a physician used his power to implant women with his sperm instead of the chosen donor sperm. 

IVF is an option for couples struggling with infertility, but it should be approached with extreme caution. A good practice for IVF is that it should be done within the confines of a marriage, without third-party donors, and with the creation only of the number of embryos that can be safely implanted and carried in the mother’s uterus. (It’s important to remember that embryos are essentially preborn humans waiting for implantation.) The use of third-party donors, i.e. sperm or egg donors, may have unforeseen implications for marriage and family relationships, and even the identity of the child, so should be avoided. But even when IVF is done between husband and wife and only a few embryos are made, human error still happens

The desire to have children can be overwhelming, but any future parents considering fertility treatments should be aware that the process comes with certain risks. The fertility industry is largely unregulated, and it is fairly easy for human error to occur with heartbreaking effects.