Aborting a fetus because it's not yours.
From a pro-life standpoint, the whole thing is grotesque. But from a pro-choice standpoint, it's agonizing. One woman who wanted a child aborted, in her own body, another woman's healthy, wanted child. It's generally understood that if you hire a surrogate to carry your embryo, she, not you, gets to decide whether to abort it. It may be your baby, but it's her body, and that's the legal trump card. A woman who's carrying your child against her will, as in the Japanese case, presumably has an even greater right to end the pregnancy. But what about you? You didn't sign a surrogacy contract. You made that embryo so you could give it life yourself. The doctor picked it because it looked like a good candidate to become a child, and the subsequent pregnancy proved him right. A healthy child, your child, was terminated without your consent, consultation, or knowledge. Is that right?
If you think this is an easy call, hang on: It gets worse. The woman who aborted the fetus was in her 20s. The woman who lost it was in her 40s. If the elder woman has since become pregnant, I can't find any record of it. Can you imagine losing your last chance at motherhood this way? What would you have said to the woman carrying your child, if you'd had a chance to speak to her in time?
The Japanese fertility establishment swears a mix-up like this has never happened before and won't happen again. Really? Here's a list of five other known cases from England and the United States. (Thanks to Slate reader apropos1 for flagging the original case in New York.) All of these mix-ups led to births except one: a 2002 incident in which, according to the London Evening Standard, two women who got the wrong embryos were informed of the mistake "within hours," and "an emergency technique was carried out to flush the embryos from their wombs and they were given drugs to ensure there was no risk of pregnancy."
The number of babies born worldwide from IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies is fast approaching 4 million. In Japan, one of every 60 kids is an IVF product. A year ago, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, half the Japanese fertility centers participating in a survey "said they understood how medical accidents could occur" at their facilities. Thirteen admitted to medication errors, and two "said they had mixed up their patients." If that's how many clinics acknowledge such errors, imagine how many have actually committed them.
Maybe this was the world's first wrong-embryo abortion. * But with more than 1 million IVF cycles being processed around the world each year, my bet is that it has happened before and will happen again. Next time, I hope, the woman who conceived the embryo will get a chance to talk to the woman who decides its fate.
Correction, March 18, 2009: I originally asked whether this was the world's first wrong-embryo pregnancy. Thanks to a heads-up in the Fray from apropos1, I found several previous mix-ups that ended in births or, in one case, immediate post-transfer expulsion of the embryos. Accordingly, I've changed the question to whether this is the first such incident ending in an abortion. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of scientist with embryos by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.