Embryo Mix-Up Woman Gives Birth, Faces Heartbreak Ahead

More experience loss as La. fertility clinic closes after confusing 100 embryos.

September 25, 2009, 5:00 PM

Sept. 28, 2009 — -- Carolyn Savage gave birth to a healthy boy Thursday at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, after carrying Shannon Morell's son for nine months.

Last February, the two mothers, both hoping for another child, were cruelly surprised when the fertilized embryo from one woman was implanted in the womb of the other.

The bittersweet story comes on the heels of the shutdown Friday of an in vitro fertilization center at Ochsner Hospital in Elmwood, La., due to a possible mix-up in the labeling of frozen embryos.

In the loosely regulated world of assisted reproduction, the mix-up between Savage and Morell is less surprising than the civility and kindness demonstrated by two families who faced a heartbreaking decision: Who were the rightful parents?

Because of her Catholic religious beliefs, Savage, a 40-year-old mother of two from Sylvania, Ohio, agreed not to abort and to give the baby back to its biological mother.

After the birth, Savage and her husband Sean congratulated the biological parents, Paul and Shannon Morell of Sterling Heights, Mich.

But the unintended surrogates then asked for privacy, saying in a prepared statement, "Our family is going through a difficult time."

"We're trying to look at it as a gift for another family that eight months ago we didn't know," she said only a week earlier. "We will wonder about this child every day for the rest of our life."

The Morells told The Associated Press that Savage was a "guardian angel" and they would be "eternally grateful."

The heartrending and seemingly generous tale unfolded on network and cable television last week, but some wonder if it will have a storybook ending.

Psychologists say the loss can be devastating, not just for Savage, but for Morell, who said she was grateful, but had felt "powerless and out of control."

"All the emotions a woman has during pregnancy to bond with her child I haven't had," Shannon Morell said. "It's been a very empty feeling. All the emotions from nine months are packed into that one day when I actually get to hold my baby. I never felt the baby kick -- none of that."

The Savages have retained two lawyers -- one in Detroit and one in Michigan -- and the top New York City public relations firm Rubenstein to help spin the media attention and deal with a host of offers for books and movie deals.

And though they appear to be working closely with the as yet unnamed fertility clinic to try for another pregnancy with their own embryos, the Savages have not ruled out legal action.

Nor have the Morells, according to press reports.

"They have left this in God's hands, but not everyone can do that," said Melissa Brisman, a reproductive lawyer from Montvale, N.J., who works on custody issues in surrogacy cases.

"It's wonderful to have such faith, but it's not always that easy for the average American to let go. It seems very civilized," she told ABCNews.com. "But most cases are not."

Already several parents in the Louisiana fertility clinic boondogle are suing.

"I don't know what could make this sit right," Melanie LaGarde, lawyer for Kim and Abraham Whitney, told ABC's "Good Morning America" today.

The couple was told just before IVF transfer that their embryos had been either misplaced or mislabeled.

"They lay awake at night wondering where their embryo could be," she said. "We really cannot understand, and have spent a year now, trying to find answers."

Embryos Placed in Wrong Woman Before

In 1998, Donna Fasano, a white woman from Staten Island, N.Y., was mistakenly implanted with the embryos of Deborah Perry-Rogers and Robert Rogers of Teaneck, N.J., as well as her own embryos. She gave birth to two boys, one black and one white.

The Rogers won permanent custody of their biological son, but not after a protracted battle. Both families filed negligence and malpractice lawsuits against the IVF New York fertility clinic.

In 2000 in Great Britain, a couple's last hopes of having another child were destroyed after their final embryo was implanted in another woman, who decided to terminate the pregnancy.

The couple, who have a six-year-old son, recently won a legal battle against the IVF Wales clinic in Cardiff, charging that, "They've killed our baby."

Such errors are devasting to all parties involved.

Shannon and Paul Morell spent four years trying to conceive through IVF. She had suffered two miscarriages and after three attempts at IVF got pregnant with twin daughters, now 2. One was born deaf, so the couple put off trying for a third child, hoping to use the leftover frozen embryos later.

Carolyn and Sean Savage -- who have sons aged 15 and 12 and 1 -- also turned to IVF to conceive their youngest child after numerous miscarriages. Not wanting to destroy the remaining embryos, the couple returned last February to try for more children.

But with the news of her fourth pregnancy, came the dreaded call from the fertility clinic, informing the Savages that the growing fetus belonged to the Morells.

For the first 14 weeks, lawyers for both families were in negotiations, waiting to see if the pregnancy would remain viable.

None of the lawyers or family members returned calls for comment from ABCNews.com.

But in an interview with the Toledo Blade, Sean Morell speculated that the mix-up may have occurred because both women share a name. His wife's maiden name is Savage.

Embryo Mix-up Brought Families Closer During Pregnancy

In the aftermath of the shocking news, the couples formed a "strong, sharing" relationship, according to the newspaper.

Carolyn Savage and Shannon Morell have attended doctors' visits together and will remain in touch after the birth.

"There's no way we could possibly repay them. ... What they've done for us," said Shannon Morell.

Because Carolyn Savage has been told that this is her final pregnancy, she has signed a contract with a surrogate mother to carry to term what will be the fourth child of their own.

The horrific mistake came as many have criticized the fertility industry of being under-regulated.

Errors like these are "rare," said Barbara Collura, the executive director of RESOLVE, which provides education and support for women with fertility issues and is a member of the National Coalition for Oversight of Assisted Reproductive Technologies.

Among the standard procedures are precise labeling of embryos, storing them in precise, separate locations and multiple verifications right up until the implantation, she said.

Collura encouraged women undergoing IVF to safeguard against mistakes by asking questions of the embryologist.

"A lot of people believe the procedure is behind some veil and you're not allowed to see, but that's not true," she told ABCNews.com. "The fantastic part of this story is that [Savage] is delivering a baby and the genetic parents are going to have a wonderful healthy baby."

But for Savage, who underwent painful hormone injections and a nine-month pregnancy only to give up her child, the situation might not be so easy to accept.

"In a million years, she never planned on this," said Judith Kottick, a clinical social worker from Montclair, N.J., who works with egg donors and gestational carriers. "It's not anything anyone would ever expect and it's the worst fear.

"A lot of women say the minute they get pregnant they start to imagine who the child is and who they will look like," she told ABCNews.com. "They already they have their dreams and hopes for the child."

Both Families Show Integrity in Embryo Case

But the Savages can likely find solace in having taken the high road.

"It really speaks to the integrity of all parties involved and that's all you can ask for," said Elaine Gordon, a California psychologist and author of "Mommy, Did I Grow in Your Tummy?"

"It's going to be hard with a lot of emotions on both sides," she told ABCNews.com. "It's not easy, but what else can they do? I give them a lot of credit.

"I think medical facility is what we need to be concerned about," said Gordon. "If you go and put your reproductive lives in the hand of others there has to be an element of trust."

As for the Morell's newborn son, "He will have a great first story," according to reproductive lawyer Brisman, who had three IVF children with surrogates.

"Everybody cared and loved him enough to do the right thing," she said. "The medical clinic fessed up. Everything is falling where it is supposed to. If we had two different couples we might have seen something different.

"The world is not perfect and sometimes things go wrong and there are mistakes," she said. "It's one of those unfortunate situations, but maybe the parents have made peace with this and then their child will be OK."

ABC News informational specialist Melissa Lenderman contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events