When the family planning spending package was jettisoned from the stimulus bill, feminists were varying degrees of upset. I don’t remember who said it where, but at least one person argued that it should be part of the bill because bad economic times are bad times to have children, and therefore good times to encourage family planning. Whether the family planning spending belonged there or not, I remember feeling the ick factor creep up at this person’s argument. Obviously providing for children is expensive. But it seemed so callous and Big Brotherish to frame it that way. “Kids are expensive, and that factory job might not hold out. Why don’t I give you guys some pills!”
I bring this up because it isn’t the only story about babies that has a solid ick component recently. I’m referring, of course, to the octuplets in California. A couple of weeks ago, they became only the second set to be born alive in the U.S. and doctors made the announcement about this great miracle and kept everyone anonymous. And then it turned out that it was this woman named Nadya Suleman, who already had six children and was a single, unemployed graduate student. And then the stories started flying.
Among the ickiest are the questions people have about how she’s going to support these children, what kind of burden they might be on society, and when she’ll get a job. Suleman is right to think she’s being singled out because she’s single. People ask the same question of couples that have multiple births, but it’s more sympathetic and spawns lots of giving. Here she’s being chided as irresponsible, but she’s no more so than couples who have multiple births or those weird Quiverfull people. Just because those are couples doesn’t mean there are two incomes or the parental duties are split equally or their choices are any more economically logical. It just fits with our picture of a couple in love struggling to have babies and raising a nuclear family that looks similar to what we imagine our ideal is.
So I have no problem with the unemployed-ness or the single-ness or the six-other-kidness. Fine. We let stars dart around the world picking up kids from as many countries as they want. Who are we to say that this particular mother can’t have kids if she wants them?
It does raise the ethical questions about in vitro fertilization that should have always been there, but tend to get hidden when we see lots of cute smiling faces and a tired-looking mom who’s hard to criticize. Suleman didn’t just want to be a mother. (If she wanted to have 14 kids, I’m sure there are 14 kids in California who would be happy to have a home with her for lack of one of their own. There are way too many children in foster care or who need adopting.) She didn’t just want to have kids. She wanted to have her kids. And she did it because she said she’d been depressed after a back injury, and she realized having babies would make her happy.
And I’m not going to judge her for that, at least, more than I would anyone else. Everyone wants to have their own biological child, it seems. I guess I understand that, though I must admit I don’t feel the same burning desire. What I do hate is how everyone, including Suleman in her NBC interview, acts as though it’s completely selfless thing to have children. Maybe raising children requires you at times to be selfless. And hopefully good parents put their children before themselves. But having your own biological children is an inherently selfish act. I don’t mean it in a judgemental way. I just mean it in the purest sense of the word: It’s evolutionarily the most selfish thing that we do. We’re passing on the codes that make up ourselves to the next generation. And each of us is the only one invested in our own genes. It’s self-reflective and self-affirming and self-concerned.
It’s hard to think of ourselves as fundamentally selfish beings, though, and I’ve always wondered if that’s why we sometimes confuse a passive right to have children with an affirmative right to have them. Obviously, it’s a woman’s choice whether to end a pregnancy. But is it completely a woman’s choice to be implanted with six embryoes (Suleman said two became twins, leading to eight) all of which required a high amount of intervention to come into being in the first place? Women have the right to end their pregnancies, but do women have the right to have a pregnancy created for them, no matter how much outside help that requires? Do doctors have an ethical obligation to selectively terminate some of the implanted embryoes should they all succeed? Women’s bodies aren’t meant to carry and give birth to that many children at once, and it’s usually bad for the babies, too. Emotionally, as well, there are other clues that Suleman might be less than stable. Does she have to go through a series of psych exams the way, say, a candidate for plastic surgery would? At what point do we decide that, just because we can do something, it doesn’t mean we should?
Let me know. In the meantime, I think we all know someone who can help Suleman out.
Tagged: Nadia Suleman