Shannon Morrell: An IVF Mistake Landed My Embryo in Another Woman's Womb

Jeanne Sager
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Misconception by Shannon and Paul Morell
Photo from Amazon
The fertility clinic was supposed to be a source of joy for Shannon and Paul Morell -- it's the place that helped them conceive daughters Megan and Ellie.

But the Michigan couple's new book, Misconception, details the nightmare that would come out of that same fertility clinic.

It was the nightmare of learning the six embryos remaining after the in vitro cycle that created their twins had been thawed -- and three had been implanted in another woman's womb.

That woman, Carolyn Savage, and husband Sean decided to continue with the pregnancy, eventually handing over baby Logan to his rightful (genetic) parents.

Shannon spoke with The Stir about balancing her kids' privacy with the desire to change other people's lives, why she still supports IVF treatment, and what would-be parents should look at before pursuing fertility treatment.

You really talk about how much you valued your privacy from the get-go in your book. What pushed your decision to finally write it?

Back in September, when we knew that the story was in the news, we thought long and hard about whether we should say anything.

I always was thinking about my son and I didn't want him linked to embryo mix-up. I struggled with the whole idea of although I thought there was a lot more to the story than just what happened to us, I wanted things to be exposed to help other people.

At the same time, I struggled with this is my child I'm talking about and his privacy and also my personal business -- do I want everybody knowing it? It was a struggle, so after I saw the show, my friend said, "You guys have a story too." She was trying to convince me to go public, and my family was saying NO.

In the end, I just thought well, we're going to be exposed. How likely can we remain private? We decided for the greater good that we should go forth and say something. Because it is a good story and maybe it could save some lives.

And the book?

As far as the book goes, we had been approached for weeks after his birth about doing follow-ups, and we weren't interested at that point. I figured if I don't talk, they'll all go away.

Then we were approached about a book. When you live it, it's a big deal but I didn't think there was much to say. And then as I reflected, I realized maybe this is a good platform to get some of those issues that I was concerned about out there.

Shannon Morell
Photo from Paul and Shannon Morell
Our story is interesting, but there's more to the story than just what happened to us. People hopefully can learn from what happened to us. This will happen again; it's happened before. But this can maybe save lives or influence people to make the right choice and help another couple to go through the same thing we went through.

I didn't find any resources; there were no books to read other than terrible things about people terminating pregnancies.

But you aren't advocating people move away from in vitro fertilization; you're still a fan of in vitro.

I am! I am! How could I not be? I have three kids as a result of in vitro. I'd be a hypocrite to say oh no, I'd never do it again. I would.

I would do it different. I chose a reputable clinic. It's not like I went to the Yellow Pages and said, aw, that looks good. I didn't go for the cheapest one out there.

I chose carefully. I think sometimes people think oh the clinic I'm going to is wonderful -- and that may be, there are a lot of great clinics -- but mistakes can happen even to the best clinics.

There are more questions they should ask; very specific questions about protocol.

I didn't write it to change people's minds about IVF. It's not an IVF handbook, but I did learn some things along the way.

You were very careful not to name the fertility clinic; but did they have any recourse for what they did to you?

That's still being taken care of. I don't have any answer yet.

That's the thing too -- clinics report their success rate to the CDC themselves. As far as how many embryos, how many eggs ... there's how many embryos did you thaw, how many did you transfer, there's a lot of specific information that people can't find out.

That's where you need to talk to the doctors. If doctors don't give them the information, then maybe that's not a clinic they want to use.

I was kind of surprised to see you advocate people donating embryos to other people. After going through the issue of having your genetic material in someone else's tummy, how do you feel about ...

I couldn't do it! Laughter. OK, even if I had five kids, I would have the others transferred. I would want to meet my kids one day and say oh, I gave you away.

There are people who honestly feel that their families are complete. And there are beautiful stories of people who have done it; they're choosing the family and there's some contact that's made.

There are a lot of families out there that would love to be a part of that. I guess I was thinking ... there are some friends I know who stopped paying on their embryos and let them be discarded.

I thought rather than discard them, give them a family who would love to have a child. There's no guarantee that it will work.

I look at the whole stem cell debate, and I could have given my embryos away. I have a child because of that; it puts a lot of issues in a different light to me.

I never really knew much about embryo donation, so I figured maybe other people didn't either. Maybe those people have been paying for 5 years, 10 years and they're just paying because they don't want to discard. Maybe they might think about it or at least start a discussion.

Having been pregnant, you found a lot of people said, "Hey, this is so easy, you don't have to go through pregnancy!" Did you feel like you were robbed of part of the process of having Logan?

I did. I always focused on the end result; in the end we are going to get this baby. That's what I was going to focus on and not on the whole pregnancy.

But I'd think oh, no, I'm not going through this, my feet aren't swelling. I didn't realize until Carolyn was halfway through the pregnancy that even though my pregnancy toward the end wasn't that great, overall it was a great pregnancy.

It's an experience that I think most women want to have, especially if you struggled and had miscarriages. The whole morning sickness and other things that go along with pregnancy, you might not enjoy at that moment, but it's still part of the whole maternal instinct and the bonding and the whole guilt.

It would have been one thing if I couldn't have done it, but I did miss out on it! I missed out on sharing it with friends and family.

I don't know if women realize how much of a joy they get out of sharing that news. It's really a family event having a baby.

Sean [Savage] said pregnancy is a public event; you really couldn't just show up with this baby without having had the stomach!

Right; except I was going to say we had complications, we used a surrogate and stop. I wasn't going to tell everyone what happened. I struggled with that for eight months, and that added to my stress.

Logan Morell
Baby Logan Morell
I didn't think everyone needed to know my personal life. In the end everyone knows everything!

Do you wish people were more open about IVF, that it had less of a stigma?

Sure... that's why the whole misconception comes. There are a lot of women who say I went off the pill and got pregnant the next month, and it's like congratulations.

For a lot of women, getting pregnant is easy, and they're working really hard not to get pregnant.

I think that women who struggle through miscarriages and infertility ... it's such an emotional drain. You feel like there's something you can do even though it's unexplainable a lot of times.

Sometimes you don't want to discuss it because you don't want somebody reminding you or asking you questions about when you're going to have the baby.

I think it's just not something women openly discuss unless you talk to friends who have similar problems. People that aren't infertile have a hard time relating, I think.

Unless you're going through it -- just like someone dealing with breast cancer -- you don't know. You can guess what it's like. Just like Carolyn carrying my child; I could put myself in her shoes, but I don't know exactly what it's like.

Are you going to be more open with your older kids, Megan and Ellie, about their conception?

I think so; I have to be! Before, I totally wouldn't have been until they were older and so forth. I have a friend at work. Her kids were conceived 30 years ago through artificial insemination, and she told me. I said, well do they know? She said no, I don't plan on telling them.

She said, well, if my daughter starts to have problems then I will. But she said I just don't think this is something I want to discuss with them.

It's part of your medical history. Be open about it. And I think in 10 years it's going to be even more common.

Is there anything else you wish people would look into before doing in vitro?

Hmmm. That's why I tried to include some resources in the book. I think, comparing clinics, it's so different from a normal medical procedure.

You're dealing with the creation of human life, and I think people are really concerned about preserving human life and not having embryos discarded that haven't died.

Not all these embryos are going to survive; women have miscarriages every day. Knowing ahead of time and really talking heart to heart with these doctors to find out who has similar beliefs ... and looking into embryo grading.

Clinics across the nation grade different. A low-quality embryo like my son doesn't necessarily mean that they're not going to make it.

Knowing really specific info about how they grade and how they freeze them ... if I were to go through this again, knowing I have a lot of eggs so I produce them well, I would find a clinic that freezes eggs vs. embryos.

I'd have fewer eggs and have them fertilized than what I did. If I'd froze eggs, I would have just used the amount for the cycle. We would have been happy with just two kids, but we felt compelled because we had those frozen embryos to see them thawed and have more children.

I love having a third child, but that way there wouldn't be all those frozen babies in the US.

Did their story change your mind about IVF?

Read the first chapter of Misconception online.

 

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