One of the biggest problems arising when megamultiples — more than three babies born all at one time — arrive is the gushing media coverage of the births. First, there's the dash to get a camera into the nursery for baby pictures. Exhausted moms are interviewed right after birth, dazed but thrilled about their little miracles. Dads are shown looking exhausted and overwhelmed as they meet their basketball or hockey team to be.
Why quintuplets, sextuplets and septuplets happen and what the real price is in the long run for megamultiple births are subjects that, while crucial for understanding the reproductive revolution and its benefits and costs, remain almost unexamined in newspaper, television and magazine accounts. And that is unfortunate, because these costs aren’t limited to just health and financial challenges faced by the family welcoming the new additions, but to society as well.
Earlier this month, two sets of sextuplets were born after their parents used assisted reproductive technologies, and their births generated a lot of media attention. Brianna and Ryan Morrison had four boys and two girls at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis on June 10. Ten hours later, Bryan and Jenny Masche welcomed three boys and three girls at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix.
The “TODAY” show spent a considerable time cooing about the births of two sets of sextuplets in such a short period of time. The show jumped right into the lives of the Phoenix family. Thirty seconds did not elapse during story promos or actual coverage without the word “miracle” being invoked. The NBC program was hardly alone in going weak-kneed over the births of so many of babies.
CNN chimed in with “good news” reports on its “American Morning” program. The newscaster noted gleefully how “tiny” the babies were.
TV coverage in Phoenix described the births as “gifts” and “bundles of joy,” among other gushing terms. Stations pitched in to help the family raise money and collect baby diapers and clothes. The Minnesota media did not miss a chance to refer to their local sextuplets as “blessings.”
The Boston Globe, Newark Star Ledger and many other papers ran short stories that heavily emphasized the good news about the sextuplet births and noting how pleased and happy the parents were.
There is plenty to celebrate when babies are born. I am not arguing that joy and delight have no place in media coverage of these events. But the media owe us more than just cheering, gushing and cooing when reproductive technologies create babies in numbers that do not occur naturally and, more seriously, that carry tremendous risks.
In the case of the Masches, the mother went into life-threatening heart failure right after the births. Too much blood was in her body from supporting all the fetuses and she nearly died. News reports noted this problem but passed over it to get back to the positive side of megamultiples. The Minnesota babies were born extremely premature at 22 weeks. Sadly, three have already died.
But the downside of megamultiples, in terms of risk to the fetuses or the moms, got little media play in the initial stories about the two sets of sextuplets.
When megamultiple pregnancies occur due to fertility treatments, it spells potential trouble for both the mother and the fetuses. Gestational diabetes, strokes and preeclampsia — a potentially lethal form of hard-to-control high blood pressure — are huge risks for moms having more than twins. And moms expecting triplets or more are almost guaranteed to have Caesarean sections.
The babies themselves are put at grave risk when there are more than two. Having megamultiples means the babies face less room to grow in the womb, prematurity and low birth weights. All of these translate into high risk for mental retardation, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy and vision and hearing loss for the babies. They are also 20 times more likely to die in the first month of their lives than singletons.
Infants born in big numbers also need to spend a lot of time in neonatal intensive care units to allow vital organs to develop, which means they require expensive, high quality medical care. Those costs are almost always borne by either insurance plans or state Medicaid funds, meaning you and I pay their bills. And obviously, if there are complications that affect the children as they grow, helping the kids — and the parents — with their health problems through special education, multiple surgeries and rehabilitative care can run into the millions of dollars.
Multiple births are not, as the media coverage would have you believe, unadulterated, wondrous miracles with no downside, nor are they generally the result of accidents, divine will or luck.
Fertility clinics sometimes transplant more than three embryos at a time into women, knowing that megamultiples could result. But a clinic can look good in comparison to its competitors by saying it can succeed in delivering babies to infertile couples. So some, incredibly, continue the practice, understanding it may be at the cost of the mom and babies’ health.
Some infertility programs also give women drugs to make them ovulate more, but then don’t monitor the patients carefully to ensure that the couple doesn’t have unprotected sex if the drugs are a little too successful and produce too many eggs.
And some clinics do not explain clearly what the real dangers are of having megamultiples. Nor do they fully encourage the option of eliminating one or more of the fetuses in utero — a procedure called selective reduction — to preserve the health of the more viable babies if there are complications or problems in the pregnancy.
Megamultiple births are not the miracles the media makes them out to be. In fact it could be argued that we should be doing more as a matter of public policy to discourage megamultiple births by getting infertility programs to do more to minimize the risk of creating them. But, given the kind of “check your critical senses at the door” media coverage that always seem to accompany these births, these are not ideas you are likely to be asked to consider in thinking about the realities about megamultiple births.