The Dutch couple, in their 30s, had tried to have a baby for more than five years. Finally, they turned to one of the most prestigious fertility clinics in the Netherlands.
They gave their sperm and eggs to white-coated technicians and the in vitro fertilization took place in March 1993. The following December brought Teun and Koen, two healthy twin baby boys.
The birth of the twins also revealed a biological anomaly that last week became the talk of the Netherlands. Little Teun is as white and blond as his father and mother and little Koen is black.
The apparent miracle has since been called a "deeply regrettable mistake" by the directors of the University Hospital at Utrecht, who now admit that the mother's eggs were accidentally inseminated with sperm from another man along with that of her husband.
And in the Netherlands, a country that normally has a penchant for social experiments, a dramatic article about the "mistake" _ printed in the newspaper Het Parool along with pictures of the twins _ has set off a new outburst of discussion about scientific tinkering with human procreation and the price that may be attached.
Still, the birth of the twins might have never become a public topic if it hadn't been for an extra problem that affected the couple: the mean gossip of the neighbors. The couple, who have become known by the pseudonyms of Wilma and Willem Stuart, live in a small village near Arnhem, the name of which they also withheld.
In telling their story to the Dutch newspaper, the mother described how the social pressures they felt, in the months before they made public the truth about their children, came in different ways. As she went out shopping with the twin stroller, she said, people made comments like: "What? Are those twins? How is that possible?" or "He is called Koen? Such a Dutch name for such an exotic child?"
Villagers and neighbors went beyond stares and disapproving looks. "There is that suggestion that Wilma had slept with another man," the mother said.
One day someone urged her: "Go on, tell your secret. Did you have two men at the same time?"
After months of this, the father said, they started to feel socially isolated.
After the birth of the twins, it took the parents some time to accept that something about Koen was different. He was a little darker at birth than Teun, they said, and got darker as the weeks went by. Denying that there was a problem at first, the couple finally went to the family gynecologist when the boys were 6 months old. Next came a DNA test at Utrecht Hospital. Last November, when the boys were 10 months old, the parents received the answer: Koen had a different biological father.
The hospital says it has no firm proof of what went wrong, but an investigation was able to recreate the event because only three in vitro fertilizations were done that day. "We suspect that a technician broke the rules and used a pipette that was not clean," said Anke Leys, the hospital spokeswoman. She said investigators have concluded the sperm belonged to a man from the island of Aruba, who has since been told.
For the parents, the news was devastating. They started sessions with a psychotherapist to deal with what the father called their "bewilderment and pain" and the questions that kept spinning around in their heads. How would they tell their son that he was not meant to exist, that he was born because of a technical error? Would they treat the children differently?
The parents say they worry about discrimination and that Koen will have fewer chances than his brother. "Let's be honest, dark people have less opportunity to get a decent job in our society," the father told Het Parool. "They have less chance to borrow at a bank."
Terrified that the biological father might claim the child, the couple have hired a lawyer. They said they love the child and would not dream of giving him up.
Eugene Sutorius, the couple's attorney, said he believed that under Dutch law the chance that they will lose their child is virtually nil. He said he has not filed a claim yet against the hospital but is negotiating for damages. "Koen was born because of a technological error. What, if any, damages or disadvantages will this bring him later in life? How do you answer that?"
Doctors have told the biological father about his son and asked if he wants a DNA test to be certain. "He has not replied yet," said Leys, the spokeswoman, who said that his name will be kept secret. "He needs time to think about the consequences. We are not pressuring him."
Fortunately, she said, the man's own in vitro procedure had also produced a healthy child for him.
The drama of the mixed twins might not have been told publicly at all if the Stuart family had lived in racially-mixed Amsterdam or Rotterdam, rather than in a small and largely white village where prying eyes and voices became unbearable.
They said they had originally not wanted to talk about the children's conception in the laboratory because of what they regarded as a stigma surrounding the subject. But eventually, they said, they felt a need to break out of their social isolation.
"We were carrying this secret," the father said, adding that they felt a desperate need to take action so that his wife could "go shopping normally, and so that Koen can go normally to school."
They decided to tell their story to one single newspaper and then went on vacation to hide from further probing by reporters. Since the news broke, repentant villagers reportedly have sent flowers, chocolates and letters to the family.
American medical experts said that the chances of such a mistake occurring during an in vitro procedure were extremely slim, in part because pipettes are normally disposed of after each use.
In 1991, a white woman in New York state reached an out-of-court settlement with a doctor and sperm bank that had inseminated her with the wrong semen, producing a black child. That case involved the more common procedure of artificial insemination, not the in vitro technique in which a mother's eggs are removed and inseminated in the laboratory, then returned to the womb.
Although in vitro fertilization has become common in the past decade _ it is currently practiced some 10,000 times per year in the Netherlands _ the case has reopened the debate about how far manipulation of human procreation should go.
"Even the highly perfected in vitro fertilization technique can lead to painful surprises," said the Catholic newspaper De Volkskrant. "Just because something is technically possible, is it also socially, ethically and religiously desirable?"
The liberal Rotterdam newspaper NRC-Handelsblad, in an editorial, wondered if the commotion is "the result of a loss of confidence in a technique that was considered infallible" or "because inadvertently a black child has landed with white parents."