If you haven’t heard at least whisperings of octuplets born in California this past week, you might want to get your hearing checked, or at least pick up a paper. Any paper. Any blog. Any radio station. The story is everywhere. The new octet is only the second set of living octuplets. The first, the Chukwu family, exploded in size a decade ago, but lost the smallest baby a week after birth. If the babies, whose parents haven’t been identified, keep doing as well as they are, they could very well become the world’s first set of octuplets to survive early infancy (it’s probably too early to predict anything else, but so far the Chukwus hold the record of a longest-living full set).
While any healthy baby is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, with the birth of eight babies comes certain ethical questions that can’t help poking their heads out of the sand.
The babies’ troubles
Higher-order multiples (triplets or higher) carry huge risks for both baby and mother. They will almost definitely be born prematurely (the California eight came nine weeks early), which can lead to breathing problems, brain injuries, learning disabilities and a grab-bag of other problems, according to the Daily Mail. That is, if they even survive. Parents of multiple births don’t often receive a happy ending filled with five or six bouncing babies. The Morrison family gave birth to sextuplets in 2007 and lost five of the six within two months.
Then there’s the hordes of media attention the babies will inevitably receive. Some families actively try to stay out of the limelight, smartly trying to avoid a fate similar to that of the Dionne quintuplets, but for others, the temptation to put one’s children on display proved too great. Check out some of TLC’s hit shows and try to guess the long-term effects that will plague a gaggle of children who are living in a fishbowl.
The mother’s troubles
Once the shock and awe wears off, the parents are left raising a basketball team of children, but their real problems begin way before that. Just imagine having eight babies walking around inside of you. During pregnancy, mothers of high-order multiples face higher risks of pre-eclampsia, miscarriage, hemorrhage, and anemia, among other problems, according to the Daily Mail. Jenny Masche, mother of six healthy two-year-olds, nearly died during childbirth of heart failure.
The donations the family will undoubtedly receive, the medical care, the child care, the media attention. Who pays for it all? Much comes from private donations, but the taxpayers often pick up the tab as well. Even in the states, it’s unlikely that the parents of a set of adorable quintuplets would be saddled with a mile-long medical bill.
All of that is nothing compared to the private cash donations and corporate product donations (think of the publicity Pampers would get for forking over a measly crate of diapers). Anything from cribs to jumpers to baby lotion can be expected if your babies are cute enough.
But what if your produce the wrong kind of sextuplets?
Born in 1997, the Thompson kids (the first set of African American sextuplets, though one baby, a girl, was stillborn) famously received only a fraction of the news coverage and donations that the McCaughey septuplets, born a few months later, received. Today, five healthy babies is certainly a feat, but twelve years ago, it was a damn miracle. So why didn’t the Thompsons receive any attention or support until civil rights activists stepped in?
While some might argue that it’s up to a woman to decide if she wants to birth one baby or eight, others think the system should do more to prevent multiple births. A Jezebel blog post reports that the UK is issuing a “one embryo only” guideline for IVF doctors as a way to curtail risky pregnancies.
Another possible solution is to make in vitro fertilization more affordable. Most high-order multiples are a result of infertility drugs like clomid that stimulate the ovaries anywhere from two healthy eggs to ten (or more). It is much more difficult to control the number of babies this way. IVF treatments, on the other hand, work by implanting a number of fertilized embryos into the uterus and hoping one of them sticks. One round of IVF, however, costs more than a year’s rent for me, whereas clomid is relatively inexpensive and accessible. A recent CBC article argues that the cost of providing child-hungry parents with IVF treatments would be more than offset by the costs incurred to provincial health care systems when it comes to caring for the babies in hospital once they are born.