The story is a harrowing one: A family brings home their newborn but immediately doubts the child is genetically theirs. DNA testing reveals the truth: A fertility centerin the Los Angeles area had switched embryos between two families and transferred the wrong embryo to each couple during in vitro fertilization. Their children were born a week apart.
After learning of the mistake, the families decided to swap the children, so the parents ended up with their genetic daughters, though they have since kept in touch. In November one of the couples filed a lawsuit against the clinic involved.
The pain and confusion for these parents is difficult to comprehend and unique to IVF. While stories of children “switched” at birth have happened since the advent of the hospital nursery, this error also resulted in mothers carrying and giving birth to children who were not genetically their own.
But responding to a story like this with fear of IVF or increased regulation would be misplaced. The more pressing issue is a lack of access to reproductive technology for many people who could benefit.
IVF errors are rare. A study published last year found that between 2009 and 2019, out of approximately 2.5 million IVF procedures in the U.S., 133 errors happened that resulted in lawsuits — 87 of which involved two alleged freezer tank failures in 2018 and 2019. A 2018 study of non-conformance with standards from the International Organization for Standardization found that 99.96% of procedures during 36,654 IVF treatment cycles in one clinic network had no violations. In short, the procedure is extremely reliable.
This is not to downplay the distress caused by medical error, which can be devastating. But even if the true error rate in IVF is higher than these studies suggest, it’s likely lower than error rates in medicine overall. Recent studies show 21% of patients report having experienced a medical error.