It’s often a funny thing when right and left agree, as did
many vocal commentators across the ideological spectrum this week in condemning
Nadya Suleman, the mother of the California octuplets conceived by in vitro
fertilization and delivered last week by a team of 46 doctors and nurses. Such
a large number of multiple births is so rare, many media reports pointed out, that
only one previous example of octuplets exists in U.S history. It’s also so rare
that Microsoft Word’s spellcheck doesn’t recognize the word "octuplet," as
several online commenters reported. This response in itself, speaking to the
volumes of Internet opinionating the octuplets have inspired, gives some indication
of how completely the controversy has transformed from a story based in solid facts
– of which there are still very few so far – into the latest projection screen
for fertility and childbirth controversies.
Big Families We Love, and Love to Hate
Nadya Suleman’s interview with Ann Curry on the Today Show
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Suleman’s newborns were delivered, as it were, into a pop cultural moment of preoccupation with large
families. Reality TV shows about families with many children abound on TV’s TLC
channel, most notably with the chronicles of the 18-child Duggar family. That the Duggars are grounded in and motivated by the pro-patriarchy Quiverfull movement, with its
emphasis on female submission and male headship, is breezily dispensed with in
favor of dwelling on the sentimental and zany experiences of life in a
20-person family. "Jon and Kate Plus Eight," another reality TV show about a
large family – this one the result of sextuplets born to a mother who, like
Suleman, chose not to selectively reduce the number of embryos that "took"
during an IVF treatment – is less burdened by the extremist ideology that
undergirds the Duggars’ convictions, but still presents a traditional picture
of large family life, with married heterosexual parents and a stay-at-home
mother. Though it’s now impossible to separate the public reaction to Suleman’s
delivery from the swirl of facts and speculation about her motivations and
mental health, it seems clear enough that much of the ire directed at her is
due to her unorthodox family situation and her singleness most of all. While
many observers are concerned with her apparent inability to support such a
large family, the fact that she is unmarried has alone been cause enough for others
to declare her family a situation of de facto child abuse.
Finding the Facts
Probably most readers know what there is to know about the
story so far – what there is to know limited by the fact that Suleman hasn’t talked
publicly about her pregnancy. What is left are slivers of information from interviews
with family members and neighbors. Nadya Suleman, a single mother and unemployed
student with a degree in child and
adolescent development, was an only child, and always wanted a large family.
According to some, she aimed for 12 children in total, or maybe, after the six
she already had through IVF, just one more girl. Her parents apparently
recently declared bankruptcy, and moved with Suleman into a 3-bedroom house
they’d bought for her, where they helped her care for her already-large family.
When controversy erupted, Suleman quickly retained a spokeswoman, which, with
her reported target of a $2 million appearance on Oprah, sealed her public
persona as American villain rather than American sweetheart. Sadder facts of
the story include the interviews with Suleman’s mother, Angela Suleman, who has
hinted at possible mental illness in her daughter by venting her frustration
with her daughter’s "obsession" with children. Another poignant detail is the
report that Suleman’s father, reportedly a Palestinian-born linguist, may have to
return to a contract position in Iraq to raise money for the care of his
daughter’s 14-child family.
When "Miracle News" Sours
After a brief moment
of "miracle news" coverage when the successful delivery was first announced,
criticism of Suleman and her unnamed doctors began to mount from across the
ideological spectrum. The hospital where she delivered reported receiving
numerous calls demanding that their medical license be revoked and even several
from people wishing the Suleman babies wouldn’t survive. More common were the
concerns, on the left, that the children would be neglected or that they
constituted an environmentally hazardous selfishness, and on the right, the
charge that Suleman was the end result of a culture that condones single parenthood and
glorifies individual choice above all other considerations.
didn’t seem to be a particular concern throughout the debate though, which has
been marked by highly moralistic overtones in discussing whether or not
Suleman’s pregnancy should have been "allowed" to take place. On liberal websites, a surprising hostility to Suleman’s right to have made such reproductive decisions has been common, taking issue with whether Suleman was entitled to choose to have so many children in her circumstances, seeming to embrace a sort of anti-choice rhetoric. (Though it’s worth noting that OB-GYN Amy Tuteur, writing on Salon, makes a convincing argument for limiting “right to choose” analogies, as endless comparisons to abortion rights only serve to distort discussions of medical ethics.) And on some conservative websites, there has been an equally surprising insistence that
Suleman should have been forced to abort some of the embryos. A number of
fertility doctors contacted to give expert opinions seemed to rush to distance
themselves from what one bioethicist, M. Sara Rosenthal, called an "outrageous"
breach of medical protocol. While the implantation of eight embryos, if it did
occur – and this seems up for debate as well, as
Angela Suleman told the AP that "far fewer" than eight embryos were implanted
in her daughter, and that they then apparently multiplied – would certainly be beyond the pale by almost
all medical standards, some of the pronouncements of fertility ethics had an
unsettling whiff of paternalism. One article discussed how responsible doctors
may have to "simply
[say] no," to women seeking multiple implantations in order to "be a strong
and responsible advocate for moms and babies." In an interview with CNN,
Rosenthal raised the neonatalist theory that women may not have the emotional capacity to make proper decisions when informed about
the risks of premature births due to the distress such news may cause them.
What’s Desirable vs. What’s Allowed
This sort of language and
reasoning, at least taking place as a debate in the non-expert arena of the
media, seems too familiar for
comfort, echoing the sort of anti-abortion rhetoric Justice Anthony Kennedy
relied upon in the 2007 Carhart case:
that abortion is not a crime women commit, but one they need to be protected
from by those who know better. The danger of slipping into that territory, of
empowering doctors to determine women’s reproductive best interests, seems
enough justification to allow for cases that offend public sensibility. As Sean
Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, explained,
"A number of commentators are saying a woman with six
kids should not be allowed medical treatment to have additional ones, and I
think, at a common sense level, that makes good sense. However, to make that
work, that means someone is going to start deciding for other people how, when
and why they can have children. That’s a very big step and one that we might
not be prepared to take."
But in contrast to
that reasonable estimation of the difference between what’s desirable and
what’s allowed, is the overlap of criticism between camps that would normally
be at ideological ends. Both conservative and liberal commenters loudly
wondered who, in this moment of financial meltdown, was going to pay for all of
this. Right-wing California shock jock Bill Handel declared the births
"freakish," and announced
that people were "ready to boycott any corporations that help the octuplets or
their mother." Likewise, commenters
discussing the story on liberal site Huffington Post suggested that if Oprah
did host Suleman on her show, viewers should boycott Oprah as well. (Neither side
should likely worry, as the AP reported on the snubbing response of Pampers and
Gerbers officials, who donated little or nothing to the Suleman family.
Television station TLC has said that, while it has contacted the Sulemans about
television opportunities, it’s holding off any production decisions until they
determine how "TV-friendly" the family proves.) A comment thread
title on Yelp summed up the sentiment of many: "Octuplets born in
Bellflower, she better not be on Welfare!!"
Indeed, a number of
feminist writers remarked on how closely the outrage over Suleman mirrored old
"welfare queen" tropes, where large families weren’t seen as miraculous or a Cheaper By the Dozen adventure – as more
traditionalistic large families are often portrayed on TV and in popular media
– but as burdens to the state, brought on by an irresponsible mother. Lynn
Paltrow, Executive Director of the National Advocates for Pregnant
Women, told Salon’s Broadsheet
that perceived race of mothers was often a key component of how stories of
large families were treated in the media. "When the pregnant woman is not brown
or black and the drugs/technologies are provided by big pharma, the discussion
focuses on questions of ethics. But if the issue is childbearing by low-income
women of color, and the drug is homegrown/illegal then the debate is a
question of punishment through the criminal justice or civil child welfare
This angle was sadly
confirmed by some blog
comments speculating whether the name "Suleman" had a "very ethnic ring to it –
Middle Eastern in fact." Conservative blogger Phyllis Chesler took these
insinuations a few
steps farther, swiftly dispatching with the makeup of America’s most prominent
pronatalist activists – complementarian conservative Chrsitians – to hang the
mantle of over-the-top procreation on fundamentalist Mormon polygamists and
Muslims (whom she refers to as "outlawed, break-away Mormon and law-abiding
Muslim men," in case her meaning isn’t clear). After noting that "Osama bin
Laden’s father had 57 children," Chesler wonders whether Suleman’s ethnicity is
determining her family size, writing, "Once this gets out-will she become a
poster child/mother for….free baby formula and diapers? Or for Jihad?"
More commonly, the
indictments were more subtle, as characterized by Townhall conservative
columnist Mona Charen, whose reaction was to blame the octuplets on
as-yet-unmarried California Representative Linda Sanchez, who announced her
pregnancy last November.
Different Judgments for Different Families
Stanek, a veteran anti-choice activist who opposes IVF, condemned Suleman
as well, albeit somewhat reluctantly. "The question I’m hearing often asked,
‘Can one have too many children?’" she wrote, "is wrong. No, one cannot.
But God didn’t intend for human mothers to give birth to litters, particularly
with no husbands in sight. It’s unnatural on all levels."
Some of Stanek’s ardently
anti-abortion readers were harsher, with one declaring that "[Suleman’s] mentality is abortion mentality: ‘I will
decide who lives, who dies, when I have children.’ I bet she isn’t even
infertile!" the writer continued, "Just hates men!" This level of vitriol
sparked Stanek to defend Suleman, and to come to the surprising defense that "sexism
at play here. Were Suleman married, no one would be questioning her motive for
becoming pregnant with multiples."
That’s not quite true. The large families promoted most ardently by the pronatalist “Quiverfull” wing of the anti-abortion movement strongly emphasize the importance of not planning one’s family – either by limiting it or artificially enlarging it – viewing such self-determination, even in the interests of growing a family, as the root of the reproductive choices they condemn. Though certainly many would be more accepting of a large family that had IVF children than they are of those who choose contraception or abortion, most hold, as one of Stanek’s commenters writes, that "If one believes as I do that God determines fertility, then one believes that in a proper husband-wife relationship God will supply a large family’s needs."
Among the movement
of purposefully very large families in the U.S., this is the predominant conviction, almost universally accompanied by an extreme traditionalism in marriage roles that holds women’s prolific fertility up
not as one option to choose but as the only righteous path for true believers.
Suleman’s family size may approximate that of the Duggars and other families at
the forefront of a theological movement that stresses traditional gender roles
above all other concerns, but that is likely where the resemblance ends. In
terms of reproductive matters of national concern, one woman’s idiosyncratic
and likely tragic choices seem to pale beside a movement that insists on
similarly large and labor-intensive broods of children for women and raises
daughters to see this as the only blueprint for their lives. It says something
about where we are as a country that the former isolated case attracts more
concern than the existence of the latter as a growing movement.