An embryologist shows an ovocyte after it was inseminated as part of an assisted reproduction procedure. A fertility clinic in Los Angeles is facing multiple lawsuits alleging that it swapped embryos, leading to emotional torment for the couples involved. (Ivan Couronne/AFP/Gerry Images)

About a decade ago, Anni and Ashot Manukyan of Glendale, Calif., entrusted their embryos to a fertility clinic in Los Angeles that promised its in vitro fertilization technique would lead to a baby.

When they returned last year to try for a pregnancy, one of the embryos took. But they say it was placed in the uterus of the wrong woman, who then gave birth to their son across the country in New York.

When the couple discovered the error this spring, they said it took an agonizing legal fight — “the most excruciating period of their lives” — to reclaim the child.

“What Anni and Ashot discovered, much to their horror, was that their son had been stolen from them when he was still an embryo and implanted into a stranger that later became his birth mother,” claims a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The case mounted by the couple is the second in the past 10 days targeting the CHA Fertility Center in Los Angeles, as well as several of its leaders.

The first was filed by the New York woman and her husband, who say they were operating under the false assumption that the embryos were their own. Instead, they claim, they were forced to relinquish custody of twins formed from genetic material belonging to two other couples, who had also sought the clinic’s services and whose embryos had been transferred to the birth mother without the knowledge or consent of any of the parties.

The civil claim, filed last week in the Eastern District of New York, alleges medical malpractice, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other counts.

The new lawsuit in Los Angeles levels similar accusations as does the federal claim, with the notable addition of an alleged breach of California’s penal code, which makes it unlawful to “knowingly use sperm, ova, or embryos in assisted reproduction technology, for any purpose other than that indicated by the sperm, ova, or embryo provider’s signature on a written consent form.” Violation of the statute is punishable by imprisonment for three to five years, a fine of no more than $50,000 or both.

An attorney for CHA Fertility did not return a request for comment on Wednesday. The clinic has not returned several requests made this week.

Eric Wrubel, a family law attorney who represented both sets of biological parents in gaining custody of their children, told The Washington Post that the other couple whose embryo was transferred to the woman in New York also lives in Southern California. These parents have not identified themselves publicly or taken further legal action since securing custody rights in May, Wrubel said.

He said the proceedings in New York County Supreme Court, which remain sealed, produced “the most emotional scenes I have seen in my 25 years” of practicing law. He called the circumstances surrounding the swirl of legal claims “unprecedented.”

Fighting back tears, the Manukyans spoke for the first time publicly about their ordeal during a Wednesday afternoon news conference. Anni, the mother, said she is still haunted by the situation and now faces trust issues, adding “I will never be the same person anywhere again in my life.”

She described in great detail the anguish of waiting to meet her son, who was 6-weeks-old when she was finally able to hold him. She alleged CHA Fertility robbed her of the chance to be there during the early moments of her baby boy’s life — notably the crucial period immediately after birth when bonding begins.

Instead, she grapples with the fact that she wasn’t there at all.

“It was indescribable. There were so many emotions running through my head,” Anni Manukyan said. “Who wants to meet their child in the lobby of a hotel? It was heartbreaking.”

The lawsuit in Los Angeles seeks compensatory and punitive damages. It paints a stark portrait of the human cost of the alleged mishandling of the genetic material.

The Manukyans trusted CHA Fertility and its staff, they recounted in their lawsuit, “with their dreams of having a child, as well as with their most sensitive and important property: their embryos.” But now, the parents allege they were left in the dark and lied to by the clinic throughout the process.

The lawsuit further states that medical providers at the clinic, when they said they were implanting in the woman’s uterus one of the embryos she had created with her husband, “transferred at least one embryo of a stranger to Anni."

“In other words, Anni was injected — against her will — with the sperm and egg of a man and woman who are complete strangers to her,” the filing recounts.

The husband and wife say they still don’t know whose embryos were transferred to Anni — not leading to successful pregnancies — when at least one of theirs wound up going to someone else. All they know, they say, is about the one transferred to the New York woman, identified only by her initials, A.P., in her lawsuit. Anni Manukyan said Wednesday she still has no idea if she has another baby elsewhere as a result of the mix up.

Meanwhile, A.P. and her husband, Y.Z., say they have not been informed of where their embryos went. Court documents indicate that the two couples were in the clinic for embryo transfer on the same day in August 2018.

While the two couples make parallel claims against the clinic, the second lawsuit also sheds light on the contentious process of allocating rights to the babies born in New York, a question that divided the two sets of clients at the clinic.

Despite the clinic’s assurance to the contrary, the Los Angeles lawsuit claims, “the New York couple made clear that they wanted to retain custody of Anni and Ashot’s son.” In response, the Manukyans filed a habeas corpus petition in family court, according to the lawsuit, and flew to New York to recover the newborn. They flew home with him 11 days later.

Surrogacy and gestational carrier laws differ by state. New York prohibits paid arrangements, and experts advise that surrogacy contracts are not enforceable in court. Between 1999 and 2013, gestational surrogacy — where the surrogate has no biological link to the baby — resulted in the birth of 18,400 infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under the unusual circumstances arising from the allegedly faulty embryo placements, Wrubel said he was able to convince the judge that the surrogacy had been unintended, thereby establishing their custody rights. Anni Manukyan collapsed when the judge granted their petition, according to Adam Wolf, the family’s attorney, who on Wednesday called the incident “among the most egregious” fertility cases in U.S. history.

“I have been hurt by these experiences in ways that haunt me every day,” Anni Manukyan said during the news conference. “I hope that no one has to suffer through what my family has been through.”

Anni and Ashot Manukyan were married in 2007, according to the legal filing. After trying unsuccessfully to have a child, they turned to assisted reproductive technology and enlisted the services of CHA Fertility to complete an embryo transfer in 2011. This led to the birth of a daughter.

A second transfer, of what they thought were two remaining embryos, occurred in August 2018, as the couple sought to expand their family.

"To this day, Anni and Ashot do not know whose embryos were actually transferred to Anni on that day,” the lawsuit claims.

They learned 10 days after the transfer that Anni wasn’t pregnant. In October 2018, they undertook a new IVF cycle, which involved hormones for Anni that caused her to develop precancerous cells in her uterus, the lawsuit claims. Two biopsies and the insertion of a intrauterine device caused “extreme physical pain and mental distress,” according to the claim. The new IVF cycle didn’t result in a pregnancy, attorneys said.

Throughout the process, the filing asserts, the couple paid more than $120,000 for the clinic’s services and associated costs.

In April of this year, the clinic’s chief operating officer asked the Manukyans to come in for a cheek swab, saying the procedure was a “routine quality control measure.”

They didn't learn until the following day, their lawsuit contends, that the cheek swab had established their biological relationship to one of the babies born to the couple in New York, as doctors told them in a meeting at the clinic.

They struggled for weeks to gain information about their son, they allege in the complaint, ultimately traveling to New York to try to assert their parental rights.

Even with their son now in their care, they say they have been irreparably harmed by the ordeal.

“Defendants’ misconduct robbed Anni of the ability to carry her child throughout his fetal development. Anni never had the opportunity to grow and bond with her son, to feel him kick in utero, and to watch him in ultrasounds,” they argue in the legal filing. “Anni and Ashot had no ability to ensure their son’s health and well-being through prenatal care and nutrition and may never know what steps his gestational carrier took to protect and promote his fetal development. Anni and Ashot are devastated that they never were able to experience the wonder of their son’s childbirth; they never saw their baby’s entrance into the world or cuddled him in his first seconds of life — moments that other parents treasure for the rest of their lives.”

The aspiring parents in New York similarly say they “suffered significant and permanent emotional injuries for which they will not recover.” Their lawsuit further states that A.P., who carried the babies, suffered “physical and emotional injuries.” It also recounts how questions first arose when sonograms suggested that A.P. was carrying male twins, contrary to what clinic staff had told them about the gender of the embryos. The mistake became apparent when neither newborn appeared to be Asian, at odds with the couple’s ethnicity.

The parents in Los Angeles, in the claim filed Wednesday, describe the experience as “a nonstop nightmare.”

Anni Manukyan and her family allege every parent involved were victims of CHA Fertility’s negligence. She called the mother in New York — who birthed her son — a wonderful woman, adding, “God will give her her own beautiful babies one day. She deserves that.”

While she’s still reeling from the lengths it took to gain custody of her child, Manukyan said the family is trying to bond and is taking things “day by day.”

“The minute he looked at me and I held him, I never felt like [he wasn’t] mine,” she said of her son. “He’s been mine from the day I got him, even before I got him, he’s been mine.”

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