Book Review: Inconceivable

Although the overly chatty subtitle of this co-authored memoir leaches some its tension before the cover is even opened, Carolyn and Sean Savage's story--by turns horrifying, frustrating and heartbreaking--remains both compelling and disturbing on several levels. As outrageous as their experience seems, it is likely to be repeated in various ways as reproductive technology continues to advance and questions of what defines parenthood become ever more complicated.

Bonded in part by their shared Catholic faith and commitment to the Church, Carolyn and Sean, who were married in 1993, had hoped for a large family. Despite her endometriosis, Carolyn had a relatively easy first pregnancy and gave birth to their son soon after they married. More fertility and pregnancy problems arose, however, and Carolyn nearly died giving birth to their second son about two years later. The Savages temporarily gave up the dream of more children for several years but then decided to try in vitro fertilization; a decision that came with some soul-searching since the Church does not approve of IVF. After another very difficult pregnancy, Carolyn gave birth to a daughter. By this time, Carolyn was close to 40 years old. The Savages were advised by their doctor that if they wanted to attempt another pregnancy with their remaining embryos, they couldn't afford to waste any time, so they didn't. The IVF was again successful but almost immediately afterward, the fertility clinic called Sean Savage to tell him that there had been a mistake--Carolyn had been implanted with an embryo belonging to another couple.

The Savages never considered terminating the pregnancy, nor did they entertain the idea of pursuing custody of the child once born. Yet both Sean and Carolyn also felt strongly that the baby belonged to them as well. Alternating points of view, the book details the excruciating months of Carolyn's pregnancy, during which the Savages established a tentative relationship with the baby's genetic parents, went through the daunting task of informing their family and friends of their situation and, inevitably, assembled a team of lawyers and media specialists. In the middle of it all, they attempted another (ultimately unsuccessful) pregnancy with a surrogate using their remaining embryos.

Readers will respond to this story in ways as personal as the story itself. All of those responses will be wrong--and all of them will be right. This very conundrum is what makes Inconceivable such an important and timely book. The Savages' story raises many more questions than it can possibly answer about, among other things, science, faith, motherhood and the law. But it is critical that we give these questions serious thought. Through their own experience, Sean and Carolyn Savage allow us to do just that.--Debra Ginsberg

Shelf Talker: A startling and unsettling memoir by a couple who were implanted with the wrong embryo at a fertility clinic.


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