Topic: Science & Technology

The Octuplet Mom: Nothing to Be Done
(02/16/2009)

Some ethics stories lead to some very unsatisfying conclusions. The story of Nadya Suleman, the unmarried, unemployed California mother of six who underwent in vitro fertilization to create a litter of eight more children she can’t possibly care for, is one of them.

Was this wildly irresponsible? Of course it was, to such an extent that the woman’s sanity is open to question. But are there any rules we can derive from her conduct that we don’t already know? I don’t see any. It is wrong to intentionally have children that you can’t support or give a secure family upbringing. It is wrong to rely on others---your mother and taxpayers, in this case---to fulfill your responsibilities. It is wrong to use the medical establishment for socially irresponsible behavior. Who, other than Ms. Suleman, doesn’t know this?

She stands as an example of how any right can be exercised in an outrageous and harmful way. California’s Supreme Court recently declared that a fertility clinic could not refuse to treat a lesbian couple on religious grounds, and that very correct ruling would probably prevent a fertility clinic from refusing to treat a serial unwed mother like Suleman. It doesn’t mean the ruling was wrong, or even that it is too broad: people who want to have children should not be prevented from doing so by someone else’s sense of ethics or morality. It is tempting to say that adding octuplets to a brood of six young children is potential “child abuse,” but so is any poor family having more children is child abuse, or a family headed by two self-absorbed, work-obsessed lawyers who work 70 hours a week is child abuse. Saying that a child is abused by allowing it to exist is not merely a slippery slope, it is a slimy one that can lead to terrible places.

Should there be a law? Well, what kind of law? There are environmentalists, Al Gore acolytes, who argue that having more than two children under any circumstances is unethical, because it leaves too big a carbon footprint. By this standard, Nadya Suleman would be Bigfoot even if she turned out to be the maternal equal of Donna Reed. No law would be fair; any law would trample on basic principles of freedom and equality. Would we want some kind of income-family stability index that would limit our families through a government-enforced child-cap? It would prevent more Nadya Sulemans…it would also make “Cheaper By the Dozen” impossible.

The arguments are persuasive that there was breach of good practice and ethical guidelines by her as yet un-named fertility clinic. It implanted Suleman with six embryos (two of them spontaneously “twinned”), when the risks to the patient and children indicated that implanting more than two posed risks for both mother and babies. Even two would have been irresponsible for Suleman, who couldn’t feed the children, two of whom are disabled, that she had already. But as she has said repeatedly in interviews, the eight were her embryos, her “babies.”

We cannot make fair and just laws and regulations based on the actions of the most eccentric and irresponsible among us. Suleman had an important right, bolstered by the laws of California, and chose to use that right irresponsibly. That should not make the right less legitimate, or less accessible to others.

Nadya Suleman made a selfish, irresponsible, unethical and stupid choice. It seems clear that everyone but her understands that. If she can’t take care of her children, America’s welfare and social service system has no choice but to do that for her.

And there’s nothing more to say, except that she’s only one woman.

Thank goodness for that.

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