It happens to all of us

This story from Australia is fascinating.

A lesbian couple wanted to have a child, so they used IVF. By mistake, and contrary to the women’s verbally expressed wishes, but not contrary to documents they had signed, two embryos (as in, four or maybe eight cells after conception) were inserted, rather than one. The chances of an embryo implanting are lowish, so just inserting two embryos doesn’t entail having twins. However the chances of having twins are substantially increased, to about 1 in 5.

The women had twin girls. They rejected using techniques such as selective reduction (usually used to reduce quins or quads or triplets to just twins), and they rejected putting one of the babies up for adoption. They also rejected terminating the pregnancy altogether, and trying again, which they could have done – they still have two embryos in storage.

The couple is suing the doctor concerned, for the costs of raising one of the twins.

But it seems they are also suffering some emotional distress.

THE partner of a lesbian mother who bore twins following a botched IVF procedure yesterday told a Canberra court how her partner lost the ability to love.

The woman, whose name has been suppressed, said her partner “shut down” and became emotionally unavailable after gynaecologist and obstetrician Sydney Robert Armellin mistakenly implanted two embryos instead of one.

Sobbing, the woman described her partner as “a generous and loving person” prior to the 2003 procedure.

“I find now that she doesn’t have the same ability to love that she used to and the same capacity to embrace difficulties or issues as a couple or a team,” she told the ACT Supreme Court.

Earlier in the week, the mother told the court the couple underwent counselling to cope with the strain on their relationship.


I need to engage in a bit of disclosure. Our children were born through fertility treatment, and as it turns out, at the time our elder daughter was conceived we were living in Canberra, and the doctor at the centre of this case is the doctor who helped us to conceive her. And, we have twins. They are identical twins, so that’s just random good fortune, rather than anything to do with the drugs or our treatment. Our twins were conceived back here in New Zealand. Oh, and aside from a few low-level drugs available on prescription from GPs, we paid for all our treatment ourselves.

I don’t know anything about the legal ins and outs of this case, ‘though as an uneducated (legally, that is) non-lawyer, it does seem to me that something that is written down (two embryos) carries more weight than a verbal communication (one embryo).

What I do know about is the sheer turmoil of becoming a parent. Over night, your world changes, completely. Suddenly, you, and you alone, are completely responsible for a tiny, helpless being. Mothers (predictably) shift their focus away from their partner, and direct all their energies towards the baby. Equally predictably, the partner, whether that partner is a daddy, or a second mummy, feels left out, and neglected. You end up renegotiating your entire relationship.

Add to that the physical strain of breastfeeding. It’s true that virtually all women can breastfeed. But it turns out that some women do it much more easily than others. Some women can run a business, keep the house going, chase around after a toddler, go to the gym, and still have enough physical resources to be able produce milk for their babies. Other women can produce enough milk, but they are permanently tired, and have no energy for anything other than feeding the baby. Physiology can, and does, differ. (This is why I sometimes get upset with the “Breast is best” police. I agree, but…. However, that’s a story for another day. And again by way of disclosure, I was able to breastfeed my elder daughter, very successfully, but with great effort, but not my twins.)

Becoming a parent is an incredibly difficult task. Many relationships come to grief over it. I have taken to advising very new parents, and parents to be, that becoming a parent is one of the most difficult things they will ever do, and if they are finding it hard, then that’s completely normal. There are remarkable joys associated with being a parent, but believe me, they really aren’t in the forefront of your mind when yet again you are getting up to feed a baby at 2am.

We have done some difficult things over the years: we have survived infertility, and two PhDs – both known marriage breakers, and we have encountered various other problems. But of all these hurdles, becoming parents was the hardest, in terms of our relationship.  These women clearly encountered considerable difficulties in becoming parents. But those difficulties aren’t unique to having twins, or even to having twins when you really just want one little baby. We experienced them when our elder daughter was born, and many, many, many parents experience them.

So sue away, ladies, but don’t base your claim on the idea that becoming a parent of twins is difficult. Becoming a parent is difficult, full stop. (Period, for American readers.)


4 responses to “It happens to all of us

  1. That is an OUTRAGEOUS claim. Of COURSE things are going to change when you become a parent. Obviously attention will focus in other areas. That partner sounds like she has self esteem issues and needs too much attention to me. Maybe they should be focusing their energy on couples counseling and not on lawsuits that are baseless.

  2. Well, if they are going to sue they will have to show that they have suffered some kind of foreseeable financial or other loss as a result of the doctor’s negligence. So it will, indeed, have to be a suit based primarily on the fact that they have ended up with twins, not just one kid. However, it won’t be difficult showing that this will cost a lot more money than they bargained for. It doesn’t take rocket science to work out that it costs more money to raise two kids than one. It should be possible to estimate the difference with some degree of precision.

    There has been a lot of irrational opposition to these women’s claim. If they can prove that the doctor was negligent and that the negligence caused them financial loss, I see no reason why they should not be compensated. Doctors should not be able to escape the impact that their negligence causes their patients merely because someone else, or even most people in the community, would not have minded the outcome. What if the doctor had somehow accidentally put in three embryos, or four? Are we saying that, as a matter of public policy, doctors can do what they like and can never be sued in these situations.

    Whether the doctor really was negligent is another thing, of course, and I agree with the view commonly expressed by doctors that too low a standard of negligence is often used by the courts. But that’s an entirely different policy issue and not what the uproar is about in this case.

    There’s been a lot in the press about this, here in Australia, and frankly I am sick of the sanctimonious backlash against these plaintiffs.

    Of course, I have no idea whether the doctor was negligent or not. But that should be the real issue. This is a civil lawsuit like any other and should not be clouded by ideas about whether parenthood is a good thing or a bad thing, or whether twins are a blessing, blah, blah. Let it the litigation run, or settle out of court, or whatever happens in the end, and leave these women alone to pursuit their rights like any other medical negligence plaintiffs.

  3. I agree. I don’t know the legal issues here, but I do think that their story of the emotional difficulties surrounding becoming parents is a very common one. So it doesn’t constitute good grounds for their claim. And that’s the only argument I’m making contra their claims. It certainly doesn’t work against any of the other grounds they might have for suing their doctor.

  4. While I enjoy and agree with most of your blog, I disagree.
    Regardless of the stresses of parenthood, litigation is the wrong answer.

    If the doctor’s mistake resulted in the women not being pregnant, or dying or some other negative outcome, then fair enough.

    But in this case it has just worked better than expected, by getting two babies rather than one.

    It’s not the doctor’s fault the relationship has broken down, but they appear to be blaming him for that.

    It smacks of a compensation culture where people expect payouts for any minor inconvenience.
    Nobody gains anything but the lawyers.

    There are other options that should have been considered. Adoption, for example.
    Compensation isn’t going to fix the broken relationship between the women.