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Where’s the Dignity? Mother of Fourteen Becomes Media’s “Octomom”

alvare_h.jpgThe headlines blared “Octomom fell fast from miracle mom to punch line,” and “Octomom erupts.” The stories were referring to a woman,  Nadya Suleman, who had given birth to eight living babies by means of in vitro fertilization using donor sperm.  The search for the identity of the father was not long in coming: “Man Gave Sperm 3 Times, Believes He May Be Octuplets’ Dad” (followed by the subheading: Tune in to ABC News’ “Good Morning America” Monday Feb. 23 to learn the identity of the man who possibly fathered the Suleman octuplets.”) This was followed by the response headline: “Octo-Mom: He’s Not the Dad” a story which ended with the observations “But it looks like his 15 minutes of fame are over before they began!” Social networking websites are hosting “clubs” supporting or bashing Ms. Suleman, and a YouTube music video features a Suleman impersonator spewing babies while a doctor catches them in a baseball glove.

Where’s the dignity of new life in this story? Where’s the dignity of motherhood and of the family?  Surveying the media carnage, there doesn’t seem to be a shred of dignity left to anyone involved with this story. We have an impoverished, multiparous, single mother with a baby-fetish, in an impoverished extended family, who meets up with an irresponsible fertility doctor willing to implant more embryos than can ordinarily safely develop or be carried to term.   If you think about the scenario a bit more deeply, it is not difficult to conclude that once law and society allow human conception to take place in a retail setting, outside of an intimate marital relationship, and thus vulnerable to the tender mercies of the “laws” of the market and of fallible human desires, it’s not at all surprising that mothers and their children so conceived would be treated as legitimate objects of  public commentary, scrutiny and even scorn.   Decisions about how many children to have, whether to bear them serially or all at once, how to conceive them, who will be the daddy, and whether or not to get married first, all become like “preferences,”  any of which can be acted upon legally, and each of which might alternatively appeal to or disgust different onlookers.

In the United States, state and federal lawmakers have contributed importantly to this state of affairs by deciding not to decide.  They have not taken the trouble discern or to form any social consensus about the wisdom of any of these “preferences.”  Unlike their behavior in other areas of the law involving children, they have not even mandated a floor below which adults’ behavior may not fall – a floor ordinarily called the “best interests of the child.” All has been left to the market to decide. And not surprisingly, the adults who constitute and run the market – and who influence the lawmakers —  have decided both that they want babies technologically if they have difficulty bearing them naturally, and that there’ s a boatload of money to be made providing babies to would-be parents. Experts estimate the size of the U.S. fertility industry to be in the billions of dollars.  (see Debora Spar, The Baby Business: How Money, Politics and  Commerce Drive the Science of Conception (2006)).   Thus no state has any law restricting the use of assisted reproduction to married versus single persons, or restricting the number of embryos that may safely be artificially implanted into a woman.  All of this has brought us to the question with which I began this paragraph: “where’s the dignity?”

The short answer is that human dignity cannot be destroyed. We are made in God’s image and likeness and can never become in essence “contemptible.”  Nadya Suleman and her children are human beings made in God’s image and likeness.  But indeed their dignity has sadly been obscured. In the case of the children, it has been assaulted from the beginning of their very existence.

The Suleman story and the public’s vociferous response helps us understand quite clearly why the Vatican’s recent instruction (December 2008) about technological interventions upon nascent human life, was entitled Dignitatis Personae, On the Dignity of the Human Person.   What is at stake is nothing less when technology intervenes in human procreation. The instruction reminds us that the dignity of every human person is real but fragile. So fragile that it is very easy for even a brilliant scientist or loving, would-be parents, to misunderstand or ignore it.  Humanity’s capacity for moral understanding, and for love and disinterested sacrifice, images but cannot equal God’s.

Which is why social practices and laws need to work hard to affirm and promote this dignity. Particularly to recognize the demonstrable fact that children’s and parents’ dignity is naturally upheld when procreation takes place via an act of love between committed, married parents.  Consider just three aspects of this dignity that are naturally upheld when the latter situation obtains:  the children are “made by love,” the only fit beginning for a human being, and within a setting naturally inclined to provide them the long-term and intensive care that human infants require. The child knows both of his or her parents, and has before him or her, an example of committed love by which to understand God’s love and to learn how to love others in the world.  Finally, natural conceptions result usually in one or several children who can be carried safely to term. Questions about how many children parents decide to have, the “safety” of the method of conception for both the child and the parents, and the desirability of the “family form” into which the child is brought are almost never troubling. The law responds to this by easily leaving these matters to the natural and private choices of the parents. The parents’ and children’s dignity is almost never called into question by outsiders.

Now contrast this setting with laboratory assisted conception.  The latter setting raises red flags at every turn.  For example, the twin rate for assisted conception patients in the year 2000 reached 444.7 per 1000 live births; the triplet rate in 2000 was 98.7 per 1000 live births. (see Trends in Multiple births Conceived using Assisted Reproductive Technologies, United States: 19970-2000, 111 Pediatrics 1159 (May 2003)) When the number of unborn children conceived artificially is sufficiently high, doctors will recommend, even insist upon, “selective reduction” (abortion of one or more of the gestating children)  Doctors encourage women to accept the implantation of multiple embryos so that the fertility clinics’ “success rates” will appear high. But multiple conceptions are dangerous for the babies involved and for their mothers, and raise the question of parents’ entire original disposition toward these new lives they are carrying. Recent findings indicated that even “singleton” pregnancies via IVF carry higher risks for the child’s well-being as compared with natural conceptions. (See  Gina Kolata, Picture Emerging on Genetic Risks of IVF, New York Times,  February 16, 2009)  Finally, childbearing outside of marriage is closely associated with difficulties for mothers and children. It is robustly correlated with poverty and with emotional and educational difficulties for the children. Planned single-parenthood, costing thousands of dollars (millions in the case of the Suleman octuplets; see Kim Yoshina and Jessica Garrison, Octuplets could be costly for taxpayers,  Los Angeles Times, Feb.11, 2009) and months of efforts, seems even more quixotic, more apparently adverse to the children’s best interests in the eyes of many.

Is it any wonder then that a pregnancy that began without due respect for the dignity of the lives involved would come to be associate with a most undignified media circus. Or that the public felt free to question whether a person who appeared to act like a “consumer” respecting children, made the right “consumer decisions?”  They asked whether she had a right to have so many children in a world of limited resources,  whether the children should receive any public monies, and whether the medical provider had a right to offer such services?  Because human procreation has been reduced to a commodity for purchase questions particularly about the number of children per family can almost appear reasonable.

Dignitatis Personae urges us to “recognize[] the legitimacy of the desire for a child and understand[] the suffering of couples struggling with problems of fertility.” But it reminds us that “[s]uch a desire… should not override the dignity of every human life to the point of absolute supremacy. The desire for a child cannot justify the “production” of offspring….”

The Suleman saga makes manifest the assault on the dignity of human live brought about by assisted reproduction.  It allows us to see clearly the risks of abandoning the natural protections for dignity offered by marital procreation. It alerts us to the inadequacy of our current laws and policies for shielding fragile human dignity. Lawmakers may respond to this current saga with proposals for restricting the simultaneous creation high numbers of embryos, or limiting the numbers of embryos which may be transferred into a woman’s uterus, or even restricting such technology to married or working parents (though I seriously doubt the latter). Such a response would be useful, but inadequate for protecting the full measure of dignity granted by God to each human person, but it would be better than this sorry state of affairs. Human beings deserve always to be brought into existence through a personal act of marital love.

(c) 2009 The Culture of Life Foundaiton.  Reproduction granted with attribution required.