AP Images
Whittier resident Ulyses Guzman holds a sign outside the home of the Suleman family in Whittier, Calif. on Friday, Feb. 6, 2009

For some years now, the biotechnology of fertility enhancement has been exalted as God’s gift to the biblically barren. A relentless narrative of entitlement intertwined with prayerfulness has framed infertility as a tragedy, an oppression, an agony, a disease. Some have proclaimed a “right” to a “natural,” biologically related child, a child “like me.” Unusually large Middle American families–some with up to eighteen children–are offered movie deals and television programs.

Against the backdrop of a cold, impersonal and lonely world, these well-feathered and overly populated nests look villagey and warm. It’s an undeniably seductive vision, even if other options like adoption and fostering are almost never mentioned. Also less discussed are the side effects of this mad race for biological generation at all costs: the likelihood of multiple births, low birth weight and birth defects; the ethics of using poorer women as fetal hatcheries; the health risks to young women who have their “Ivy League” eggs extracted for handsome sums of cash.

There are loads of good reasons to think about regulating these medical procedures; we should have come up with something other than a “free market” for them years ago. But now, with the birth of Nadya Suleman’s octuplets in Bellflower, California, we are confronting a perfect storm of eugenic outcry. With a plunging economy, all the well-rehearsed elements of the “undeserving” welfare queen are lined up: Suleman is single, disabled, unemployed, on food stamps and has six other children under the age of 8, one of whom is reportedly autistic. She lives in a matchbox-size house with her resentful parents, who think she’s insane. Toss in that funny, foreign-sounding name–which turns out to be, gasp, Iraqi!–and the backlash is in full swing.

No doubt Suleman has emotional problems. But rather than caring about her mental health, much of the media are content to pillory her as a drain on the public dole–selfish, frivolous, calculating and cruel. No Brangelina-style accolades of “God Bless ‘Em” in People magazine. Just impassioned calls to cut off her remaining sources of income and to criminally prosecute the doctor who fertilized her. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution even ran an op-ed calling for the government to appoint a legal advocate for every child born to an unmarried woman, since the “lack of a father’s guidance” must be “a major cause of [children’s] suffering.” Furthermore, in the case of Suleman’s children, “the legal advocate would file suit against the fertility clinic or a physician who knowingly contributed to their abuse–life in a multiple-child household headed by a single woman.”

Nadya Suleman’s saga, in other words, has highlighted a deep cognitive dissonance about whether children are “assets” or eternal expenditure, divine joy or devilish curse in a time of dwindling planetary resources. When I first heard of Suleman, my immediate thought was of Andrea and Rusty Yates–married, fundamentalist Christian believers in that ubiquitous story line about going forth and multiplying no matter what. After caring for and home-schooling five very young children with no assistance but prayer, and with accumulating signs of postpartum psychosis, Andrea Yates woke up one morning and drowned all her children with quiet efficiency.

And so the specter of psychotic breakdown haunts me when I think of the Suleman abode: one autistic child, plus 2-year-old twins, plus four other kids ages 3 to 7, plus eight newborns ranging from one to three pounds, plus a grandfather who has gone back to Iraq to earn more money for the family, plus a grandmother furious at the medical professionals who “assisted” her daughter, plus a surreally chipper Nadya, who despite the miserable odds remains enrolled as a graduate student in, of all things, pediatric counseling. This situation is undeniably sheer madness, but the public discussion seems fixated on the question of whether she can “afford” so many kids, as though if she was rich, this would be sane.

This past fall The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story by Alex Kuczynski, fashion writer and self-confessed “cosmetic surgery addict.” Her wish to have a child was framed by fierce determinism, the “natural outgrowth” of marriage to her husband–without whom she “would skip the child.” Kuczynski is married to a man whose “sperm had a track record”–six other children by two prior wives. She, the third bride and twenty years her husband’s junior, described herself as engaged in nothing less than a “battle for my fertility”; having a biological child was “necessary,” a “mad desire,” a “compulsion” and “proof” of the marital bond, without which she faced “wrecked hopes” and an “abyss of grief.” Indeed, to die “without having created a life is to die two deaths: the death of yourself and the death of the immense opportunity that is a child.” When she thinks she’s pregnant, she feels a “shiver of victorious accomplishment…. my own fecundity triumphant.” When she tells people she’s not, she feels “barren, decrepit, desexualized,” “branded with a scarlet ‘I’ for ‘Infertile,'” “the dried-up crone with a uterus full of twigs.”

Just because Kuczynski is married and wealthy does not make her less obsessive or more profound than Suleman. Kuczynski sounds like a sad, silly child mooning over “fertile but fit” stars like Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Salma Hayek and “John Edwards’s sometime mistress,” who all had babies in their 40s. Likewise, Suleman takes heart looking at Angelina Jolie. Suleman and Kuczynski represent disturbing emotional extremes. But that should not excuse the rest of us from examining the oppressive competitive natality that seems to have gripped us–the fantasies of “baby bumps” and breeding, always breeding, yet more of “our kind.” Our culture’s antifeminist backlash and its unrealistic aspirations have bewitched Kuczynski and Suleman, these two young women who are so addled and so suggestible, so endowed and yet so impoverished. All these years after the age of “liberation,” perhaps it is time to revisit the myths we still concoct about childless women’s worth.