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A fertility center mixed up two couples’ embryos, lawsuit says. When they found out, they had to trade babies.

Daphna Cardinale said at a news conference on Nov. 8 she gave birth to another couple’s child after a mix-up at a fertility clinic. (Video: AP)
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When Daphna Cardinale became pregnant with her second daughter in January 2019, she was overjoyed. The in vitro fertilization process was a success, and she savored the next nine months, knowing the pregnancy would probably be her last.

But when the girl was born that September, Daphna and her husband, Alexander, were shocked. Alexander took several steps away from the birthing table, backing up against the wall, when he first saw the baby’s jet-black hair and complexion that was darker than his, his wife’s and their first daughter’s.

Even after they brought the girl home, Alexander could not shake the dissonance. The couple’s family and friends noticed, too, saying they were surprised the girl looked so different and even asking if the embryo had been donated. Alexander sometimes felt he had to joke that the baby girl was not his daughter.

In fact, the couple soon learned, she wasn’t.

According to a lawsuit the Cardinales filed Monday, the fertility clinic that facilitated the in vitro pregnancy, the California Center for Reproductive Health, implanted another couple’s embryo into Daphna. Their own embryo, the Cardinales learned, was implanted into the mother of the child to whom Daphna gave birth. In other words, the Cardinales allege, the fertility clinic mixed up the embryos — a mistake that forced the couples to trade their babies after months of raising them.

“We had no idea at the time that this greatest potential for joy would bring us such enduring pain and trauma,” Daphna said at a news conference on Monday.

The couple is suing the clinic and its owner, obstetrician Eliran Mor, for monetary damages. Their claims against Mor and his company include breach of contract, medical malpractice and infliction of emotional distress on the couple.

Mor did not immediately respond to a message from The Washington Post late Monday.

The Cardinales’ case is not the first instance of an embryo mix-up. In 2019, another California couple waged a legal fight to reclaim their child after their embryo was implanted into another woman.

They thought their embryo didn’t take. Then their son was born to a stranger across the country, lawsuit claims.

In vitro fertilization is a lengthy process in which an egg is extracted from a woman, fertilized and then implanted in the woman’s uterus to initiate a pregnancy. But it is expensive, requires the woman to undergo hormone treatment to produce multiple eggs and ultimately may not result in a pregnancy.

Still, Daphna and Alexander wanted a second child, but after years of trying, they were unable to conceive naturally, according to the lawsuit. So, on the recommendation of a friend, they sought the services of Mor and the California Center for Reproductive Health.

Their first attempt, in October 2018, was unsuccessful. But the couple tried again in January 2019 and said they were ecstatic when Daphna became pregnant. Yet their joy turned to confusion on seeing that their newborn daughter’s appearance was different from theirs, and tension began to simmer between the couple, according to the lawsuit.

The discrepancies ate at Alexander, prompting him to speak of the girl’s appearance frequently, according to the lawsuit. He’d even stay up at night to stare at the baby girl and wonder if she were his. Daphna, meanwhile, tried to convince herself that the baby was hers; after all, she had jet-black hair as a baby. But often, Daphna would experience “dissociation,” according to the lawsuit, and the mother would spend time looking in the mirror, searching for the baby’s features in her own.

Daphna soon became “fed up” with Alexander’s constant remarks about the girl’s appearance, prompting her to buy a DNA test. When the results came back in late November 2019, the lab said the results were “strange,” according to the lawsuit, and quickly confirmed that the Cardinales were not the baby’s biological parents.

The couple hired a lawyer and contacted the California Center for Reproductive Health. Several weeks later, the couple learned through DNA testing that another woman had given birth to their daughter. The Cardinales had been raising the daughter of that woman and her partner after the California Center for Reproductive Health had transferred the wrong embryo into each mother, the lawsuit charges.

The babies had been born a week apart, according to the Associated Press. The second family is not named in the lawsuit.

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Soon after both families discovered that they had been rearing the wrong children, they arranged to meet, and they continued to stay in contact in the following days, according to the lawsuit. At first, the couples would exchange the babies for short visits. But after the babies spent their first full nights with their biological parents, the couples decided that constant switching was too difficult, and they exchanged the babies permanently.

At a news conference Monday, Daphna said she and her husband are “devastated.”

“Our memories of childbirth will always be tainted by the sick reality that our biological child was given to someone else,” she said, “and the baby that I fought to bring into this world was not mine to keep.”