An act of extreme, wilful fecundity?

Why the birth of octuplets in California so speedily turned from a good news story into a finger-wagging morality tale.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Why is the world suddenly so down about the birth of octuplets in California? Never has a good news story so speedily transmogrified into a finger-wagging morality tale.

When Nadya Suleman gave birth to six boys and two girls in five minutes on 26 January, it was greeted as a ‘midwinter miracle’, a story that ‘cheered recession-hit America’, a ‘welcome relief from bailouts and bankruptcies’. Now, with the eight babes barely one week old, it has become a shrill parable about overpopulation, resource depletion, the dangers of fertility treatment and the problem of ‘poor mothers’. The story has shapeshifted from a ‘ray of sunshine for a nation in the grip of economic meltdown’ to a ‘tale of seedy self-indulgence’ (1).

To be sure, not many women would make the decisions that Ms Suleman made. Going ahead with a high multiple pregnancy can be dangerous, both for mother and babies, who tend to be born very small and very premature and thus are susceptible to heart, respiratory and brain-development problems (2). And the news that Ms Suleman, who is reportedly unemployed and not very well off, already had six children – meaning that she now has a brood of 14! – will have made the everyday, always-busy parents of two, three or four kids groan with exhaustive empathy. Yet if we are serious about reproductive choice, then someone like Ms Suleman must be free to opt for a Brady Bunch-style family, just as other women opt to have no children at all.

Behind the understandable ‘what was she thinking?’ response of ordinary news-watchers, the steady denigration of this story from a ‘midwinter miracle’ (it is only the second time in American history that a set of octuplets has been born alive) to a ‘seedy tale’ reflects a broader cultural discomfort with fertility today, with the very re-creation of the human species. Many look upon the Suleman babies, not as eight bundles of joy, but as eight carrycots of carbon. The babies are less ‘gifts from God’ than ‘potential polluters’. A contributor to Salon magazine said the first thing that ‘flashed into his consciousness’ following the octuplet birth was the question of ‘how many natural resources will be used to house and feed these new arrivals’. ‘How many rainforests will have to be cleared so we can continue raising more cattle to keep them fed with one-dollar hamburgers?’ He said these eight ‘mouths to feed’ are further evidence that a ‘tidal wave of humanity’ is consuming the planet (3).

Not surprisingly, the octuplets story was dragged into the reporting of Jonathon Porritt’s miserabilist demand at the weekend that, given the already destructive impact of swarming humanity’s muddy eco-footprint on the planet, it is irresponsible for families to have more than two children. Porritt, who chairs the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission, must be ‘horrified at the behaviour of Nadya Suleman’, said one report (4). Echoing Porritt’s demands, one online writer said the Suleman story had ‘brought the issue of overpopulation to the forefront [of public debate]’, and argued that having more than two kids – never mind 14 – is ‘a sin against humankind and an offence against Mother Earth’ (5).

Many seem unable to conceive of the Suleman babies as the bringers of joy – despite the fact that, in the only statement issued by the mother to date, she described their birth as a ‘miraculous experience’ – and instead see them as mere ‘users of resources’, money-grubbing, nappy-requiring, food-scoffing cling-ons to our already jam-packed planet. ‘These children will be provided with public education at taxpayer expense’, said Salon, treating the provision of free education as some sort of terrible, unacceptable burden. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ms Suleman was ‘racking up unfathomable medical bills that would, in all likelihood, fall to taxpayers’ (6). Others demand to know ‘who is going to foot the bill’ for such things as diapers (one website estimates that Ms Suleman will have to spend a total of $23,738 on diapers) and baby wipes ($10,000) (7).

The discussion of the Suleman Eight as a financial and environmental burden, as a strain on both taxpayers and on the planet, as both the users of monetary resources and the flatteners of rainforests for all those ‘one-dollar hamburgers’ that they will consume (that’s the only thing poor people eat, right?), exposes the contemporary cultural view of new human life as being somehow destructive. The old-fashioned view of poor children as a burden on society’s economic resources mingles with the new-fangled view of all children as a burden on the planet’s resources, giving rise to a handwringing discussion of a remarkable eight-baby birth as something terrible. The impact of misanthropic environmental thinking is key here. The more that the planet is seen as a fragile larder of limited resources, the more that phrases like ‘human impact’ and ‘human footprint’ become dirty words, and the more that overpopulation comes to be seen as the root of all eco-evil, then the more that new birth becomes a cause for concern rather than for celebration. Society’s discomfort with the f-word – fertility – is now projected on to the Sulemans.

For others, the Suleman Eight highlight the dangers of unregulated fertility treatment. It is reported that Ms Suleman conceived her eight babies, and her six other children, with the aid of IVF treatment. And people want to know what kind of doctor willingly implants eight eggs into the womb of ‘an unmarried, unemployed California mother who’s already raising six children aged two to seven’ (8). A columnist for the Boston Herald said: ‘Here’s hoping California authorities find and prosecute the fertility doctors involved, for reckless child endangerment. For that’s what this is really about. Children in any high multiple birth almost always endure chronic health problems.’ (9) Commentators slam the ‘unregulated fertility industry’ for assisting even a family where ‘there’s no dad, no money, no job, no room and six older siblings’ (10).

Of course it is a doctor’s job to advise women who receive IVF treatment of the risks of high multiple pregnancies. And the evidence suggests that they did precisely that in the Suleman case: they suggested to her that she should consider a partial abortion, but she chose to reject their advice. However, the implication behind the widespread denouncement of Suleman’s doctors as ‘irresponsible’, ‘negligent’ and even ‘criminal’ is ominous indeed. Are we saying that doctors should decide which women are desirable for IVF treatment and which are not? That they should limit the choices of those women who are ‘unmarried, unemployed’ and who already have kids at home? And those who have ‘no money, no job’, too? (11) Since when did it become acceptable again to imply that poor women should not procreate and that doctors should do everything in their power to stop them?

As it happens, it isn’t true that the ‘fertility industry’ (that i-word is always used to create the impression of sinister God-playing laboratories or baby-making factories) is ‘unregulated’. As Time magazine reported in response to the Suleman miracle-turned-controversy, ‘reproductive medicine is among the most regulated specialities in the US’ (12). All fertility clinics must report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how many embryos they transfer in every IVF cycle, as well as the number of babies born from every cycle (13). Some fertility experts are outraged that one unusual multiple birth has been used to problematise the broader, and often truly miraculous, provision of IVF treatment. Richard Paulson, director of the fertility programme at the University of Southern California, demanded rhetorically: ‘Would we write laws limiting the size of someone’s family to six? Would we write laws mandating selective reduction?’ He said that more tightly ‘restricting reproductive rights’ would be a ‘minefield’ (14).

Dr James Grifo, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the NYU School of Medicine, sensibly said: ‘I don’t think it’s our job to tell [women] how many babies they’re allowed to have. I am not a policeman for reproduction in the United States.’ (15) That so many commentators post-Suleman are calling on fertility doctors to be precisely that – the cops of baby-making, the selectors of who may be impregnated and who may not – exposes the fragile foundations to the principle of reproductive choice today. It also casts some light on what many observers, from the British government’s top green, Jonathon Porritt, to various commentators shocked that an unmarried mum is having more babies, consider to be the problem with human fertility today, especially of the natural variety: it is unregulated, uncontrolled; pretty much anybody can have a baby, even those with no money and no commitment to reducing their carbon footprint. The fervour with which some want to clamp down on doctor-assisted reproduction exposes their deeper desire, however wishful and forlorn it might be, to limit all forms of fertility – for the sake of the planet, for the sake of the public purse, for the sake of not having too many of the ‘wrong’ kind of people with their one-dollar hamburgers.

There is even a conspiracy theory doing the rounds about the Suleman Eight. One conservative website says the babies, born to a woman with a clearly Muslim name, might be part of the ‘jihad by stealth’, where Muslims are procreating in order to outnumber Christians: ‘If we want to know what the US will be like in a few years we need only look to the UK. Muslims now have the numbers in Europe to wreak no end of havoc and they are doing it.’ The conspiracy theorist even suggests that Ms Suleman might have been ‘hired’ as a ‘brood mare’ to help ‘populate the planet with more Muslims’ (16). Insane, right? Clearly. Yet this mad conspiracy-mongering can also be seen as simply a more twisted, sinister version of the mainstream Fear of Fertility, only in this story it is American values that are threatened by uncontrollably fecund Muslims rather than the ‘health of the planet’ being threatened by overly fecund people in general. Today, the concern about too much fertility in general sits uncomfortably with a concern about too little fertility in the West as compared with the East. The end result is the rehabilitation of the old discussions of the ‘wrong’ people having the ‘wrong’ kind of babies.

Fertility used to be a nice world. It meant being ‘rich in resources or invention’, fruitful, prolific, productive. Now it is a dirty word, looked upon as a pastime indulged by eco-thoughtless or the ‘wrong’ people who must be regulated, controlled or guilt-tripped into changing their ways. A Los Angeles Times columnist described the birth of the Suleman Eight as a ‘display of extreme, wilful and not miraculous fecundity’ (17). That can be seen as the elite view of child-bearing more broadly today, which, in a world of allegedly limited resources and too many bad people, is increasingly seen as a potentially ‘extreme’ and ‘wilful’ activity.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Sandy Starr criticised the HFEA’s campaign to reduce multiple births. Jennie Bristow showed how the government was concerned that pregnant women act responsibly and condemned the fertility police. Emily Hill called claims about drinking during pregnancy an attack on working-class mums. Ellie Lee argued that personal reproductive choices should not be a matter for legal regulation. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1) How her heartwarming story was revealed as seedy self-indulgence, Daily Mail, 2 February 2009

(2) The health risks of multiple pregnancies, Guardian, 27 January 2009

(3) Octuplets: how much is too much?, Open Salon, 27 January 2009

(4) Go green: have fewer kids, says environmentalist, Guardian, 1 February 2009

(5) UK green guru: two children should be the limit, NewsBlaze, 1 February 2009

(6) Eight is more than enough, Los Angeles Times, 31 January 2009

(7) Diapering and feeding octuplets – how much will it cost with the California octuplets?, The Examiner, 30 January 2009

(8) Having eight babies is a childish way to get fame, Boston Herald, 1 February 2009

(9) Having eight babies is a childish way to get fame, Boston Herald, 1 February 2009

(10) Having eight babies is a childish way to get fame, Boston Herald, 1 February 2009

(11) Having eight babies is a childish way to get fame, Boston Herald, 1 February 2009

(12) Octuplets Fallout: Should Fertility Specialists Set Limits?, Time, 2 February 2009

(13) Octuplets Fallout: Should Fertility Specialists Set Limits?, Time, 2 February 2009

(14) Octuplets Fallout: Should Fertility Specialists Set Limits?, Time, 2 February 2009

(15) Make that 14: Octuplet mom already had 6 kids, Yahoo! News, 30 January 2009

(16) Fourteen is More Than Enough, Canada Free Press, 1 February 2009

(17) Eight is more than enough, Los Angeles Times, 31 January 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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