Branimir Kvartuc/AP
Kaiser Permanente's Bellflower Medical Center doctors (from left) Dr. Mandhir Gupta, Dr.
Karen E. Maples, and Dr. Harold M. Henry speak at a press conference in Bellflower, Calif.,
on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009.

Questions Follow Miracle Birth of Octuplets

February 05, 2009 12:28 PM
by Cara McDonough
Difficult ethical questions are being asked after it was revealed that a California woman who gave birth to octuplets already has six young children.

Eight Babies, Many Questions

Nadya Suleman, 33, gave birth to octuplets Jan. 26, launching a firestorm of media coverage as the babies were only the second set of live octuplets born in the United States.

But the story is now attracting criticism. Since the birth, new information about Suleman has surfaced, including that she is single, already has six children ages 2 to 7, and lives with her parents.

Along with the general public, the medical community is speaking out. Fertility doctors have said the birth “goes against the mission of their work,” which is to provide a woman with one healthy baby, reports The Washington Post.

"It was a grave error, whatever happened," said Eleanor Nicoll, a spokeswoman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine to the Post. "It should not have happened. Eight children should not have been conceived and born."

Suleman has not yet revealed how the babies were conceived or what clinic was involved. Two procedures commonly used in fertility treatments—in vitro fertilization and intrauterine insemination—can result in multiple embryos, but most doctors say they work with two or three embryos, or sometimes as many as four; never eight.

Reportedly Suleman has told the media that the doctor implanted less than eight embryos, but they multiplied, although many experts do not buy this explanation.

"I think the real issue here—the real criticism here—is that the physician was totally, totally irresponsible," said Jacksonville, Fla. fertility specialist Kevin L. Winslow to The Florida Times-Union. He said that multiple births carry risks for both mothers and babies and physicians need to be responsible advocates for their patients.

Some say the birth points to the fact that the infertility field as a whole needs to be regulated. David C. Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, said that medical guidelines in the United States contain too many instances of the language "you should" rather than strict rules. 

Other recent reports have suggested that Suleman, who has hired publicists to deal with media inquiries, is being approached with offers for TV and other media deals. But spokeswoman Joann Killeen told NBC’s Today show Wednesday that financial gain was not Suleman’s intention in having the octuplets and that she had always wanted to be a mom.

Opinion & Analysis: The right to ask questions

Many opinion and editorial pieces have cropped up since the birth. While several writers concede that the government does not—and should not—have the right to dictate a mother’s choice to have as many children as she wants, they believe the public should be allowed to raise questions. Some suggest that taxpayers may be paying for the care of the premature infants (born more than two months early) and may end up footing the bill if the mom of 14 needs assistance in the future.

An editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal states that although babies are always “a miracle and a blessing,” the public has a right to ask some questions about the birth of octuplets.

“In an era when tax-funded hospitals are going broke tending to even the routine humanitarian medical needs of waves of illegal immigrants, when giant federal welfare schemes hand the bills for so much medical care … to us, the taxpayers, a few questions may be appropriate.”

William H. Woodwell Jr. writes that premature births that occur often when a woman is carrying more than one baby can place a burden on the infants and their families, as well as society. “Whether it is in society's interest to continue spending enormous sums of money to save babies who otherwise would have died—and to do so with no guarantee that they will develop into fully functioning human beings,” is a hugely difficult question, he writes.

Related Topic: IVF screening method

The CARE Fertility Clinic in Nottingham, England, recently announced the pregnancy of a 41-year-old woman, made possible by a technique which involves testing a set of chromosomes inside a woman’s eggs to determine whether in vitro fertilization (IVF) will work.

The screening was heralded as a major accomplishment because researchers believe that the main reason IVF fails is due to chromosomal abnormalities in the eggs. The screening treatment could make IVF much more successful by allowing doctors to weed out faulty eggs, but could also help address the issue of multiple births by eliminating the need to implant multiple embryos.

Background: First set of octuplets born a decade ago

In 1998, the first set of octuplets born alive in the United States were delivered three months early at a Houston, Texas hospital. Seven of the children—Ikem, Jioke, Chima, Chidi, Ebuka, Gorom and Echerem—survived. The smallest baby, Odera, died a week after birth. In December, the remaining octuplets—five girls and two boys—celebrated their 10th birthday, according to MSNBC.

Reference: Infertility


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