Aborting a fetus because it's not yours.

Science, technology, and life.
March 18 2009 7:41 AM

Scrambled Eggs

Aborting a fetus because it's not yours.

Tray of embryos. CLick image to expand.

Would you abort a fetus just because it wasn't yours?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The question sounds crazy. How could it not be yours? If it's in your body, you must be the mom, right?

Wrong. Through in vitro fertilization, you can get pregnant with somebody else's fetus. Thousands of surrogates already have. You can also carry an unrelated child using donor eggs and sperm. But these are things you'd have to sign up for. The scary scenario is the one you never expect: going through IVF and discovering, weeks into your pregnancy, that your doctor put the wrong embryo in your womb.

If you think this can't happen, I have bad news: It just did. A public hospital did it to a woman in Japan. Now she's suing the local government for more than $200,000, claiming mental anguish.

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How did it happen? Simple. The doctor got two dishes mixed up. Here's the time line, as far as we know: On Sept. 18, the doctor transferred two of the woman's embryos to her womb. On Sept. 20, he added a third embryo—the unrelated one. On Oct. 7, he told her she was pregnant. Around Oct. 16, he started to suspect the growing embryo wasn't hers. On Nov. 7, he explained what had happened and told her she was probably carrying another woman's child. On Nov. 11, with the couple's consent, the pregnancy was aborted.

If this time line holds up, the embryo grew for 54 days in vivo. Add a few days of cultivation in the dish, and you're looking at 8 weeks of development—technically, a fetus. The couple has filed suit, and the hospital has held several news conferences, with each party divulging details. Yet nowhere in the press accounts is there any suggestion, much less evidence, of a fetal or maternal health problem. If either party could invoke such grounds for the abortion, you'd think they would have. But they haven't. It seems to be a straightforward case of aborting a fetus because it came from the wrong family.

Or, rather, because it may have come from the wrong family. Remember, the first two embryos that went into the woman were hers. For complex reasons, the doctor inferred that the one that had grown was the third one. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, doctors told the woman on Nov. 8 that "it was not possible to confirm the source of the fertilized egg at that time, but they could analyze the mother's amniotic fluid in six weeks. However, if she waited that long, it would be too late to terminate the pregnancy." Apparently, the fetus was subsequently discarded, leaving no way to settle the question.

Now the parties are disputing which of them pushed for the abortion. The couple's suit, as described in a wire report, alleges that "they reluctantly terminated the pregnancy under hospital guidance" after doctors "recommended an early termination … telling [the woman] not to wait until amniotic fluid analysis could be conducted for confirmation of the fetus' identity due to risks to the mother." A hospital official describes the exchange differently: "We just explained to her about the risks of abortion in the period after an amniotic fluid scan but did not recommend abortion."

Where do I start with this twisted story? In the Japanese press, there's a suggestion of scandal because, absent definitive tests, the fetus might actually have been the couple's own flesh and blood. If it was, the story goes, then the hospital must be called to account for persuading them to abort their own child, when they innocently thought they were aborting somebody else's.

That somebody else, a fellow IVF patient, was in the same hospital all along. Nobody consulted her about the abortion or even told her about the pregnancy. Not until Jan. 25, a full two and a half months afterward, did doctors tell her and her husband what had happened. The doctors claim she was too weak to be burdened with the bad news.

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