Opinion

Eight is more than enough

Ihave octuplet derangement syndrome. Ever since Monday, when an unidentified woman gave birth to eight babies at Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Center near Los Angeles, I've been obsessed. And not in a good way.


FOR THE RECORD:
Octuplets: Meghan Daum, in her column Saturday, wrote that octuplets were born to a woman in Houston last year. The babies were born in 1998. —



Sure, there were a lot of grinning doctors at news conferences early in the week, when they announced that the delivery had gone off without a hitch and all the babies were breathing on their own. By Wednesday, however, despite a heavy rotation of the word "miracle" in headlines and blog posts, many fertility doctors were emphasizing that "higher-order multiple births" (meaning anything more than twins) connote serious risks. Despite the outcome of this particular case so far, it should not be cause for celebration.

My particular derangement, somewhere between train-wreck fascination and unbridled outrage, was fueled by questions as to how such an unwise pregnancy occurred (Kaiser at first wouldn't say whether the mother used fertility drugs) and why so many members of our baby-crazed society insist on glorifying even the most dangerous, irresponsible and (despite a fondness for seeing them as divinely determined) technologically assisted reproductive events. I scoured articles on sites ranging from Foxnews.com to the Huffington Post and then, like an addict who's hit bottom, began reading comment boards.

Judging from the remarks, which reflected a wide range of rhetorical and grammatical prowess, I wasn't the only one riveted by the case. Some people praised the octuplets' mother for opting out of "selective reduction," a procedure in which some of the embryos would have been aborted in order to improve the viability of the others (not to mention to potentially keep her from dying). Some thought her an abomination for racking up unfathomable medical bills that would, in all likelihood, fall to taxpayers. Others just seemed excited about the inevitable reality show that would inevitably materialize when the kids were old enough to pack into a stroller built for eight.

Interestingly, the people commenting appeared confused about basic medical facts, namely the chances of conceiving octuplets without medical or chemical intervention (a few thought the pregnancy might be "natural," even though it's clear human litters aren't what Mother Nature had in mind). Many also didn't get the difference between taking fertility medication and the more precise--and more expensive--technique of in vitro fertilization, or IVF, in which eggs are fertilized outside the body and then put back in limited quantities (generally two or three; not eight, at least not according to the standard medical protocol).

Then on Thursday came the news that the mother's marital status was unknown and she already had six other children. She also appeared to live in a small house with her parents. No mention of a father.

What?

Despite the fact that I had taken a vow of abstinence from the disinformation and righteous hand-wringing of the comment boards, I succumbed. Though some people still considered 14 children "a blessing" no matter the circumstances, the tone was decidedly more vitriolic. Is this woman mentally ill? An illegal immigrant? A con artist? Moreover, where's the medical provider that's responsible for the pregnancy?

Then came an L.A. Times interview with the woman's mother, Angela Suleman, who said the embryos were implanted. Astonishingly, some doctor somewhere apparently implanted eight embryos and, in Suleman's words, "they all happened to take," and her daughter "refused to have them killed."

My initial plan in conducting all this "research" was to write about the various cultural influences that might have encouraged this display of extreme, willful and not miraculous fecundity. I was going to talk about the glorification of high-order multiples by television shows like "Jon and Kate Plus 8," which depict the wacky yet supposedly manageable lives of a couple with twins and sextuplets. I was going to cite other cases, such as the Masche sextuplets, born in Phoenix in 2007, and the octuplets (though one died a week after delivery) born to a Houston woman last year. I was going to mention the big-ticket donations these families received, including nanny services, vans, college scholarships, even houses. I was going to lament the combination of naivete and voyeurism that fuels public interest in their lives and wonder aloud why words like "blessing" and "miracle," especially when applied to babies, so often distract from the realities of parenting them.

OK, I guess I just did some of that. But I still can't stop scanning the conjectures, accusations, approbations and imputations on the comment boards. The facts aren't in, at least not all of them. Just enough so that for now, I remain deranged. Along with everyone else.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com
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