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Not true that boy has 'wrong' father after IVF mistake

26 August 2003
By Dr Kirsty Horsey
Reproduction Editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 222
This week's BioNews reports on an unnamed 13-year old boy who, after six years of legal action, has discovered the 'truth' about his parenthood. Confirming suspicions that he has supposedly harboured since he was aged five, a court-ordered DNA test has proved that the man he has grown up knowing as his father (despite not believing him to be so) is, in fact, no biological relation. His mother, who had IVF treatment with this man in 1988, must have had her eggs fertilised with the sperm of another man. She and her son began to notice, as the boy grew older, that 'he did not look or behave like his father'. The boy said that he knew something was wrong - even before his parents separated and he was 'forced' by the courts to maintain contact - that he 'never bonded' with the man and 'felt uncomfortable' with him.

The UK tabloid press pounced upon the story. The Sun newspaper, which had the exclusive interview with the boy and his mother, ran the headline 'I always knew he wasn't my dad', adding commentary pieces titled 'IVF nightmare' and asking 'Just one of many errors?'. The majority of other newspaper and TV reports appeared to be in agreement that the boy had the 'wrong father' after an IVF mix up. But what makes this man the 'wrong' father?

This man went to a clinic with his former wife for IVF treatment, paying £5000 for it, resulting in the birth of a baby boy. The Sun reports that the IVF treatment was part of an attempt to save a rocky marriage - it failed to do so and the couple split up soon afterwards. The mother has since married again. The fatherhood issue in this case, then, appears not to be based on an IVF mistake, but on the fact that a marriage failed, and a child grew up with another man performing the role of social father - his step-dad. Had the marriage been happy, this boy would have grown up with the man who intended to be his father, providing sperm for IVF, and there would perhaps have been few doubts - from him, his mother, or anyone else - about his 'true' parentage.

Inevitably, this case has sparked comparisons with the one which came to light last year in which a white woman gave birth to mixed race twins after her eggs were fertilised with the sperm of the wrong man. After that case, IVF checking procedures were tightened with the aim of preventing mistakes such as these in the future. Errors should now be far less likely, but that's not to say human error cannot occur, and it is possible that mistakes other than the ones that have recently been made public have occurred in the past. What these cases show, however, is that we need to rethink what being a father, mother or parent means. Does it mean genetic input or, in today's technologically advanced society, should we be considering a redefinition along the lines of social or intentional parenthood?

The boy in this week's story did not have the 'wrong' father at all. He had, like many children following divorce, a man who he did not live with who he called his father, and a step-father. In no way, in his case, was a genetic relationship important: he says he is not interested (even if it were possible) in tracing his genetic father and nor is his mum. The basis of this case is a failed relationship, not an IVF mistake. Just because a mistake has been proved, this is not - or should not be - as The Sun would have it, 'a scandal which will shock the world'.

4 February 2013 - by Ari Haque 
Ottawa fertility doctor Norman Barwin has been suspended from practising medicine for two months after artificially inseminating women with the wrong sperm. Five women were involved in four incidents of receiving the wrong sperm between 1986 and 2007....
31 May 2006 - by Dr Kirsty Horsey 
A British couple have spoken to the press about the 'nightmare' they have gone through since a mistake was made during treatment they received at a Leeds fertility clinic six years ago. This is the first time the couple have spoken publicly about their situation, despite...
9 August 2004 - by BioNews 
An American woman who had the wrong embryo transferred to her uterus during IVF treatment has agreed to compensation of $1 million with the doctor who performed the procedure. Susan Buchweitz had the IVF treatment at Fertility Associates of the Bay Area clinic in San Francisco, California in 2000, which...
25 August 2003 - by BioNews 
A UK newspaper has reported that a 13-year old boy has grown up thinking the wrong man was his father after an IVF mix-up. The Sun reports that sperm from the wrong man was used during his mother's fertility treatment at the private Wellington Hospital clinic in London in...
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