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Monday, 8 July, 2002, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
IVF mix-up heads for court
The clinic mixed donor samples
A judge may have to decide what happens to black twins born to a white couple after an apparent blunder at an IVF clinic.

It is possible that sperm from a black patient was used in error to fertilise eggs from the white woman, or that an embryo was implanted in the wrong woman.

Neither the people involved nor the clinic can be named, and a court hearing has been scheduled for October to consider the legal status of the babies. It is thought the couple want to keep the twins.

The case has prompted calls - including one from Labour peer and fertility expert Lord Winston - for tighter regulation to prevent a recurrence in the future.

Q&A: IVF "mix-up" - click here.

It should not be a surprise to people because we know that human error can always occur

Dr Sammy Lee
The couple went to the fertility clinic for IVF treatment after trying unsuccessfully for years to have a child.

IVF involves mixing sperm from the man and eggs from the woman together in the laboratory, before they are placed in the woman.

When the babies were born, the couple noticed that they were clearly dark-skinned, and suspected that something had gone wrong.

Possible errors

A source at the NHS trust in question, which cannot be named, told the Sun: "Great steps have been taken to ensure that this sort of thing never happens.

"It must be a one in a million chance.

"The big problem now is, who are the real parents of the twins?"

IVF, or in vitro fertilisation, is used by about 27,000 couples a year in Britain.

Fertility expert Dr Mohammed Taranissi, director of the Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre in London, told the BBC that such a mistake could not happen regularly.

He said: "It is extremely unlikely because there are always double checks at every step of the way.

"Insemination, checking for eggs, putting embryos back are always checked by two people just to make sure that these kind of incidents do not happen."

He said there were three possible explanations.

The first was human error, which is rare, but it can happen.

The second could be that the couple themselves used donated sperm, eggs or embryos. However, in these cases clinics try to match up with the physical characteristics of the couple.

Thirdly, it was possible that the couple had passed on a genetic disorder to their children that had resulted in a change to their skin pigmentation. However, this is again unlikely.

Tighter rules

Dr Sammy Lee, of the Portland Hospital in London, said patients should not be alarmed.

But he said: "It should not be a surprise to people because we know that human error can always occur.

Professor Ian Craft, director of the London Fertility Centre, said mistakes have been made before.

We just cannot afford to have these things happen

Professor Ian Craft
He said it was probably time for the regulatory body to consider tighter rules.

"I have been aware of a situation at another centre whereby one couple received the wrong sperm from someone from a different ethnic group.

"I fear that they might now be recommending that we have an extra layer of administration, but perhaps we should - we just cannot afford to have these things happen."

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, of the British Medical Association, said that legally the woman who carries a child is the mother, regardless of its genetic inheritance.

American baby

An American mother, Donna Fasano of New York, gave birth to another couple's baby in 1998.

Ms Fasano, who is white, gave birth to a black child and a judge ordered that she should hand the infant over to his biological parents.

In Holland, suspicions were raised when a woman called Wilma Stuart, who is white, gave birth to dark-skinned twins in 1993.

DNA tests showed the hospital had mistakenly mixed sperm from her husband with that of a black man from the Dutch Antilles. She kept the twins.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said inspections were regularly carried out to ensure that clinics met standards set out in its code of practice.

"Clinical and scientific inspectors check that clinics have procedures in place to double-check the identification of the individuals undergoing treatment, the sperm and eggs at the time of insemination and the embryos and the patient at the time of embryo transfer."

The BBC's Niall Dickson
"This is a people business and people make mistakes"
Fertility expert Lord Winston
"The real problem here is that the regulatory authority is under-funded"
Fertility expert Dr Sammy Lee
"I do not think patients should be alarmed"
See also:

31 Mar 99 | Americas
07 Aug 01 | Health
31 Mar 99 | Medical notes
08 Jul 02 | Health
08 Jul 02 | Health
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