It didn’t take long for the story of the California octuplets to get ugly.
A little over a week ago Americans were jubilantly celebrating the healthy birth of octuplets in California. But as details about the new mom’s life emerged — that she is a single mother with six other kids at home and that all her children were conceived by having embryos implanted —the media and the public quickly turned on Nadya Suleman.
Talk-show hosts railed at her. The phantom physician presumed to be responsible for her in vitro procedure was lambasted. Everywhere there were cries to reform reproductive medicine. Internet bulletin boards filled with venomous shots at the 33-year-old mother, accusing her of being selfish and mercenary. She hired a publicist and is reportedly seeking millions to tell her story. In her first interview on TODAY she defended her motives for having so many children, telling anchor Ann Curry, “all I wanted was children. I wanted to be a mom. That's all I ever wanted in my life.”
Experts say the public's sudden and dramatic flip-flop from coo-ing celebration to resentful backlash highlights the clash between two competing sets of values: the rights of the individual and her obligations to society. Americans don’t want anyone making rules about family size.
“Americans are particularly reluctant to comment on another person’s choice of how many children to have,” says Josephine Johnston, a lawyer and research scholar at the Hastings Center. “And we tend to have an appetite for media coverage of unusual family situations.”
But we want people to act responsibly and to have only as many children as they can afford to raise. For example, it's been estimated that the hospital bill alone for delivering eight premature infants could top $1.3 million. Now everyone's wondering exactly how Suleman thought she was going to support her family, Johnston says, especially if the babies suffer developmental problems so common with premature deliveries.
Making matters worse in the eyes of many people, the delivery of the mom's eight babies by a Los Angeles hospital team of 46 doctors came at a bad economic time. Americans might still be celebrating Suleman’s bountiful brood if they weren’t worried about feeding their own, or fearful of losing their jobs and access to health care.
Why is that audiences cheer programs such as the reality show “Jon & Kate Plus 8" or eagerly follow the but are apparently turned off by Suleman's saga?
Anthropologist Helen Fisher has no problem understanding the sudden change of heart. Both responses are hard-wired deep in our DNA — and they’re quite visceral, explains Fisher, a research professor at Rutgers University and author of “Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type.”
“The whole point of the evolution of the brain is to create systems for passing on our DNA —that’s the payoff, passing our seed on to tomorrow,” says Fisher.
‘Disregarded the zeitgeist’
Our initial response to the births might be compared to what we feel when we see the happy winner of a big lottery collecting his check. From an evolutionary standpoint, Nadya Suleman has won the genetic jackpot, Fisher says. She’s managed to spread her seed widely.
But once people began to suspect that the eight babies were a result of a well-thought out plan, rather than the unpredictable side effect of a modern medical technique, opinions changed.
“They feel she’s gotten away with something,” Fisher says. “She’s gotten away with life’s greatest prize and we’re going to have to pay for it.”
Mom says she had 'deep need to connect'
In the interview with Ann Curry, Suleman said she never expected to have so many babies. Her goal, she said, was to have just one more.
According to Suleman, six embryos were transferred each time she underwent IVF. The eight fetuses that turned up this time were a surprise for everyone.
Suleman says she wanted a big family to make up for the isolation she felt as an only child growing up in what she called a ‘dysfuntional family.’ She wanted the babies because of a “deep need to connect.”
Ruth Jaffe, a psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and Connecticut who specializes in women’s issues, found that response troubling.
Children shouldn’t have the responsibility of filling their parents’ emotional voids, Jaffe says.
“And why should one child not be enough?” she asks. “I would have to wonder why, once she had six, she would need to have more. It’s a dangerous direction to go in.”
Suleman may end up passing on feelings of isolation to her own children, Jaffe says. Numbers can work against you, she explains. “How good of an emotional connection can she have with 14 children?”
It might have been better for Suleman to have gotten counseling before attempting to cure her feelings of isolation by building a big family. That action may have simply postponed the inevitable. Years from now, “they may need a gigantic auditorium for the whole family to get therapy.”
Who will pay?
Concern about exactly who will pay for the children's medical costs is amplified by the current economic crisis, Fisher says.
“Right now people are trying to pull together and work as a community,” Fisher says. “They’re trying to clean out Wall Street. They’re thinking green. We’re in a contraction mode, not an expansion one. And here is a woman who has absolutely disregarded that zeitgeist.”
It’s as if Suleman went out and got eight new gas-guzzling Humvees while the rest of us were switching to fuel efficient Honda’s, says Fisher. “And now we’re the ones who will have to pay for all the potholes created by those Humvees.”
Ultimately, some of the controversy — and bad feelings — may be resolved once more facts come to light, experts say.
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Suleman says a fetility doctor implanted six embryos into her uterus and they developed into eight fetuses, but even so, the trend over the past decade or so has been to reduce multiple births, says Dr. Jamie Grifo, program director of the New York University Fertility Center.
Eight babies at once, Grifo says, “is a medical travesty.” The multiple births should be everyone’s focus, not the total number of children, Grifo says. And that’s simply because multiples increase the risks to both mom and her babies.
We don’t regulate how many children some gets to have, says Grifo. And trying to will lead to a slippery slope. “Where would that end,” he says. “We let 14-year-old unmarried girls have kids. We don’t neuter husbands of women with six kids.”
Another important question yet to be answered: Why did Suleman try for so many babies?
Some people believe Suleman did this for economic gain, says Jaffe, the psychoanalyst.
But, "it hasn’t been established that she is anything but someone who decided to carry all those fetuses to fruition,” says Jaffe, who has counseled women trying to decide whether to selectively reduce multiples.
Jaffe suspects that some of the outrage comes from jealousy — and hypocrisy.
“People do envy those who achieve instant fame,” she says. “And even if she was looking ahead to financial gain: What is so wrong with that? She’s got a commodity that grabs the attention of the world and she’s going to get rewarded. Why are we so morally outraged?”
Pointing to how forgiving Americans are of sports stars who’ve bent the rules to get ahead, Jaffe asks: “Why isn’t she allowed to ‘get away’ with having some kind of monetary feedback from her great accomplishment?”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.