Although she talks about returning to college to finish her master’s degree, Nadya Suleman has no job and no income save for supplemental security income payments for three of her children and $490 a month in food stamps. Yet, when Suleman learned she was carrying at least seven fetuses, she was delighted.
“I do believe that children are all blessings from God. And I feel it's all positive; it's a positive experience,” Suleman told NBC’s Ann Curry in an exclusive interview Tuesday on Dateline NBC.
When news broke on Jan. 26 that a California woman had given birth to octuplets, the reaction from the public was overwhelmingly positive. But in less than two weeks, as word got out that Suleman was a single and unemployed woman with six other children under the age of 8, public opinion branded her, in Curry’s words, “the most vilified mother in America.”
“Why is it responsible for a single woman without a job with six kids to bring eight more children into this world?” Curry asked, echoing the question that so many Americans are asking.
“I personally do not believe I'm irresponsible,” the 33-year-old woman told Curry. “Everything I do revolves around my children.”
In segments of the interview that ran on the TODAY show on Monday and Tuesday, Suleman had said that she does not get welfare despite the food stamps she gets or the government payments for three children with varying disabilities — a son who is autistic, another child with ADHD and a third who is developmentally delayed in learning to speak. She also said she is able to provide for her children.
Tuesday night on Dateline, Suleman said that she is also in debt.
“How much in debt do you have now?” Curry asked.
“Probably 50. Close to 50,” she said.
“Thousand dollars?” Curry responded.
“How is that not like welfare?” Curry pressed on.
“Oh, no,” Suleman protested. “These are student loans. You consolidate the loans, you pay it back. We don't pay back welfare.”
“Okay, so you don't have a job, Your students loans have run out… So you're saying you have no income coming in?” Curry summarized.
“At the moment, no,” Suleman said.
“Are you not being selfish?”
“No, I'm not being selfish. I don't believe I'm selfish in any way,” the mother of 14 said.
“But how is it not selfish to bring children in the world that you cannot actually afford?” Curry asked again.
“Because I know I'll be able to afford them when I'm done with my schooling,” Suleman said.
Seeking a 'bond that I lacked'
Suleman was born in Fullerton, Calif., in 1975. Her mother was a high school teacher. Her dad was a restaurateur and later a realtor. She had no siblings and said that she felt deprived in childhood, describing her family as “dysfunctional” and her mother, with whom she lives, as emotionally distant. From an early age, she said, she wanted to have a huge family when she grew up.
It was, she said, about “having that bond that I lacked.”
She married at 21 and had one ectopic pregnancy – a potentially life-threatening condition – that was terminated. She learned she had various problems that would prevent her from having children except through in vitro fertilization.
“I went through about seven years of trying — through artificial insemination and through medication. And all of which was unsuccessful,” Suleman said. “I had so many reproductive problems from fibroids. I have also had lesions in my fallopian tubes. It turned out that my tubes were scarred. So the only option left over was IVF, a procedure where they remove your eggs, and then they take the sperm, culture it in a dish and then transfer it back.”
Saving up for fertility treatments
In 1997, she had taken a job at a state mental hospital. In 1999, in a riot in the women’s unit of the facility, she suffered a back injury. Over the next seven years, she would collect about $165,000 in disability payments.
When she was working, Suleman said she put in double shifts and saved all her money to pay for in vitro treatments. Her marriage fell apart about the time she was injured in the riot, and she asked a friend to donate sperm. He agreed, and the man’s sperm has been used to conceive all 14 of her children. He has not met any of them, but Suleman says she expects that one day he will.
Her first baby – Elijah – was born in 2001 when Suleman was 25. “I just felt it was a blessing. It was,” she said of her emotions at the time. “I kept praying. And it worked.”
She paid for “several” in vitro cycles herself, spending at least $100,000 on multiple procedures that gave her six children through five pregnancies in seven years. Last year, she went back to her in vitro clinic hoping to have one more baby. Medical ethicists say that no more than three embryos should be implanted at a time in a woman of her age, but she had six frozen embryos left at her clinic and her doctor, Dr. Michael M. Kamrava of the West Coast IVF Clinic in Beverly Hills, agreed to implant all of them.
The Los Angeles Times has reported that Kamrava has a very low success rate in IVF procedures – around 10 percent compared to a national average of nearly 40 percent. Yet every one of the six embryos took, and two of them split into twins. Her obstetrician counted seven fetuses in ultrasound scans.
Suleman was advised to selectively reduce the number of fetuses, but she refused, citing her belief that all children are gifts from God.
“What gives any human being a right to pick and choose which embryo —which fetus — is more valuable than another?” she told Curry. “You know, that is not up to human beings.”
Suleman said that after 24 weeks of pregnancy, she found herself unable to get up. She was rushed to Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Center, and then spent the following six weeks bedridden while her mother cared for her other six children.
Her doctors determined that the babies had to be removed by Caesarian section at 30 weeks, and a team of 46 medical professionals assembled for the monumental task, and even they were shocked when after delivering the seven infants they expected, an eighth was still in her womb.
The infants are already the longest-surviving octuplets in American history. They will remain in neonatal intensive care for several more weeks before they are released.
NBC’s chief medical editor has said the bill for the delivery and post-natal care could run $1.5 to $3 million, and The Los Angeles Times reports that Kaiser Permanente has already asked Medi-Cal, the state health insurance system, to pay the bill.
While Suleman visits her octuplets in the hospital each day and raises her six active children, the controversy continues to rage.
Dr. Jeff Gardere, a clinical psychologist and family therapist in New York, has never met Suleman, but he told “Dateline” that her obsession with children seems similar to fixations some people have with plastic surgery.
“There is no clinical diagnosis as to someone who wants to get pregnant or have children over and over again,” Gardere said. “I think perhaps the closest thing that we can come to is some sort of an obsession where they feel what they had is never enough and they want more. We see this sometimes with cosmetic surgeries, where they just want more and more of the surgeries to feel better.”
Dr. Mark Sauer, a professor of reproductive endocrinology at Columbia University, told “Dateline” that the doctor who implanted six embryos violated professional standards.
“My best guess is that there was a flagrant violation of the professional standard of how many embryos to transfer in a young woman. The reason for that, I don't know,” he said.
A risky move
Curry asked Suleman if it was fair to her other children to allow herself to be implanted with six embryos, knowing the grave risks associated with such pregnancies.
“I think there are a lot of things in life that are not fair,” she said. “It is going to be hard for them. But life, I believe, isn't always perfect and idealistic.”
Curry said that the world — and perhaps her own children — want to know, “What are you doing?”
“I'm providing for my children,” Suleman replied. “I'm loving them unconditionally, accepting them unconditionally. I have a plan.”
“But you're not providing for your children,” Curry told her. “You don't have the income to provide for your children.”
“I am providing for my children,” she insisted. “Everything I do is for them. I'll stop my life for them and be present with them. And hold them. And be with them. And how many parents do that? I'm sure there are many that do, but many don't. And that's unfortunate. That is selfish.”
Most of Suleman’s children aren’t aware of what is about to happen to their family, but 6-year-old Amerah told “Dateline” that she didn’t think eight more siblings is a good idea.
“Do you think it'll be fun to have a lot of brothers and sisters like that?” Curry asked.
“No,” Amerah said.
“'Cause there's gonna be a lot of crying.”
“Do you think your mom's going to be okay with all those kids all the time?”
“She's gonna be stressed out all the time,” Amerah opined.