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.”