Something has gone terribly wrong when a 33-year-old single woman - who has no home of her own, no job, and a mother who worries her daughter is "obsessed" with having children - winds up with 14 of them. And all are under age 8, including eight newborn babies now in a neonatal nursery in various states of prematurity.
Examining what exactly went wrong may shed some light on what ought to be done. If doctors cannot prevent such a shambles from recurring, then society must.
The woman in question, Nadya Suleman, lives with her parents in a small home near Los Angeles. She has had infertility problems linked to blocked Fallopian tubes. She can make eggs, but they cannot be fertilized naturally because of the blockage.
Suleman apparently used donated sperm and in vitro fertilization to create all the embryos that became her children. She underwent treatment to cause her to produce many more eggs than the normal one per month, and they were surgically removed from her body and fertilized in lab dishes. Some of the resulting embryos were put back into her body, and that is how her first six children were made.
Unhappy with only six, Suleman sought further fertility treatment and had an additional eight of her embryos defrosted and implanted. They produced the now famous octuplets who, after a Caesarean section, are in intensive care at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Bellflower, Calif. Sadly, there is no known case of octuplets in which all escaped severe disabilities.
The most obvious questions raised by this sad saga include: How did Nadya Suleman become a fertility patient? And how did she get eight embryos implanted when she already had six young children to care for in a tiny house, with no partner and no income?
Some fertility doctors would answer that it's not their job to decide how many children a person can have. Jeffrey Steinberg, medical director of the Fertility Institutes, which has clinics in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York City, was quoted as saying: "Who am I to say that six is the limit? There are people who like to have big families."
James Grifo, a renowned fertility specialist at New York University, had little time for those wondering why Suleman was a patient. "I don't think it's our job to tell them how many babies they're allowed to have," he reportedly said. "I am not a policeman for reproduction in the United States."
With all due respect, the idea that doctors should not set limits on who can use reproductive technology to make babies is ethically bonkers.
If someone comes to a clinic with a history of child abuse, active drug addiction, and a rap sheet with serious felonies, should the doctor simply say: "If you have the money, I will make all the babies you want"? That gives cash and carry a whole new meaning.
Doctors have an obligation to consider patients' requests for treatment, but they do not have to honor them. One very good reason not to do so is if a doctor believes that what the patient wants would put children at grave risk.
Putting eight embryos into a woman is exactly that - putting kids at grave risk. Putting eight babies into the family of a single mom already trying to cope with six other young kids, with no money and little help, is putting kids at grave risk. The doctors who allowed Nadya Suleman to receive multiple embryos engaged in grossly unethical conduct.
The other major ethical problem raised by this story is the hijacking of health-care dollars by someone acting irresponsibly.
Suleman had to know that starting a pregnancy that might create eight tiny lives was to risk killing herself, as well as killing or severely disabling one or more of the babies. Fortunately, she made it through the pregnancy. But the cost of neonatal care for her eight new children probably will exceed $1 million.
When they are discharged from intensive care, more millions of dollars in medical costs likely await, not to mention the help Suleman will need just to handle all of her children's basic needs.
Society needs to discourage mega-multiple births. And it is clear what needs to be done to accomplish that.
If the medical profession is unwilling or unable to police its own, then government needs to get involved. We already have rules governing who can get involved with adoption and foster care. Shouldn't these minimal requirements be extended to fertility treatment? And shouldn't some limit be set on how many embryos can be implanted at one time, along with some rules about what to do with embryos that no one wants to use?
Other nations, such as Britain, keep a regulatory eye on reproductive technologies and those who wish to use them, knowing their use can put kids at risk in ways that nature never envisioned. We owe the same to children born here.