How Could This Happen?

updated 10/05/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/05/2009 01:00AM

The tiny life in Carolyn Savage's womb was supposed to be her miracle—a beloved baby conceived by in vitro fertilization after years of trying for a bigger family. But on the very day the clinic phoned to confirm her pregnancy last February, her husband, Sean, stood ashen-faced at their bedroom door. "He said, 'You're pregnant, but they transferred the wrong embryos,'" recalls Carolyn, 40, who then frantically paced the room and curled up on the floor of her closet. "I was yelling, 'No, no, no!' It was as if I was running away from my own body. The idea that the baby in me wasn't mine—I just could not believe it."

The next morning another family—90 miles away from the Savages' Sylvania, Ohio, home—were no better prepared for what they would hear. Shannon and Paul Morell had so expected a routine visit to their fertility clinic doctor that they brought along their 2½-year-old twin girls. Then the Morells' grim-faced doctor delivered the astounding news—three of their six frozen embryos had been mistakenly thawed and implanted in another patient. "'And she's pregnant,'" he said. "The whole world stopped right then," says Shannon, 39. Horrified for so many reasons, she feared that the other mother might choose abortion: "I was livid, shocked, sad, totally helpless."

The mix-up was made even more poignant by the women's personal plights. For medical reasons, this was Carolyn's last chance to carry a baby, and, because the clinic can't locate the Morells' remaining three embryos, it was Shannon's final shot at having another child of her own. Now, having placed their trust in the high-tech world of fertility medicine, both families feel—with just two weeks until the baby's scheduled birth—betrayed by the science that was supposed to bring them joy. And on the day Carolyn and Sean thought they would welcome their fourth child—a little brother for Drew, 15, Ryan, 12, and Mary Kate, 1½—they will say goodbye to a baby they'll never know. Even facing such heartbreak, when their deeply apologetic doctor outlined just two choices for the Savages—terminate the pregnancy or relinquish the infant to his genetic parents—carrying the baby to term was the only thing the Catholic couple would consider. "We didn't need any help on that decision," says Sean, 39, a financial adviser.

For that, the Morells feel immense gratitude—and guilt that their happiness comes at such a price for the Savages. With a history of miscarriage, Shannon conceived her twins by IVF and had been ready to try again. "I know this wasn't my fault," she says, "but I feel responsible. How will I ever repay her?"

Both families have declined to name the fertility clinic, but have retained attorneys to review their legal options [similar cases have ended up in court; see box]. The families met once last spring and have since settled into a cordial relationship by e-mail. "I never touched her belly," Shannon says of Carolyn. "I've tried to respect her privacy." The Morells will be at the hospital for their son's birth and have agreed to give the Savages a few minutes to take photos with the newborn. Beyond that, there will be no co-parenting. "They were the intended parents," Carolyn says. "We just want to know he's happy and healthy."

For now the Savages are in charge of that—and they are particularly mindful, Carolyn having given birth to Ryan 10 weeks early because she suffered from HELLP syndrome, a rare variant of pre-eclampsia. She then struggled for 10 years, enduring three miscarriages and undergoing IVF before having Mary Kate. While the current pregnancy has gone well, both Sean and Carolyn feel they can't be too careful with so much at stake. "If your own kid falls down, it's one thing," Sean says. "But if you have someone else's kid in your custody and they hurt themselves, you feel so much worse." Led by their faith to give their own five remaining embryos a chance at life, the Savages have already contracted a gestational carrier after being advised by Carolyn's doctor that her body can't safely handle another pregnancy.

While Carolyn admits it's hard to hear Shannon talk about her nursery and baby names, she and Sean have undergone counseling to prepare for the emotional parting. They've even planned a special farewell keepsake for the baby—a blanket inscribed with their private message to him. "At the end of the day, there's a life coming," says Sean. "Even though it's in an unusual way, it's still a gift."

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