Those Obscene Octuplets

(x-posted to The Valve)

Greetings from California, where, as is now very widely known, people do crazy things with the help of doctors, up to and including giving birth to children 7 through 14 at the same time.

Since most people’s interest in the Guinness Book of World Records begins to wane by age 11, it’s surprising to me that the Suleman octuplets have created such an enormous scandal. They are an inescapable subject across completely different workplaces, social settings, and social classes. The story has been told by nearly everyone, major media included, in an emotional register that goes all the way from outrage to very angry mockery.

How will she (Nadya) pay for the family? Why is she so “obsessed” with having children? Why would she have more children if it meant that her mother would speak disapprovingly of her? Why would a doctor assist with the process, despite having taken some kind of Greek oath early on? Where’s Dad?

At first, this story struck me as merely another case of something small getting a lot of media time, a category that also includes sensational murders and descriptions of how the First Family relaxes. That was my initial reaction; as I continued to bump into the story again and again, I was struck by the fact that it is really obscene, in the sense of an event or practice that attracts hatred and disgust exceeding any legitimate objection. Suleman certainly strikes me as foolish, but why does her decision strike so many Americans as obscene?


The simplest answer is that she is bringing a huge number of children into the world during an economic depression. Even though there is little evidence that Suleman is currently penniless, we worry for the future of all those children because right now the future seems bleak, period. The ur-mother becomes a source of anxiety, rather than a symbol of American vitality.

I think the meaning of the event goes deeper, though. Look at how Yahoo! News reported the story:


There were frozen embryos left over after her previous pregnancies and her daughter didn’t want them destroyed, so she decided to have more children.

Her mother and doctors have said the woman was told she had the option to abort some of the embryos and, later, the fetuses. She refused.

Her mother said she does not believe her daughter will have any more children.

“She doesn’t have any more (frozen embryos), so it’s over now,” she said. “It has to be.”

Suleman actually played by the rules of the anti-abortion movement. She treated each of her fertilized embryos as a human individual possessing a right to life, and refused to either destroy the embryos or abort the fetuses. The whole event was set in motion by a perfectly justifiable procedure — she couldn’t have had any children without medical help — and carried forward by an ideological way of interpreting fertilization and pregnancy that has nothing to do with such concerns as the whereabouts of the father, or her ability to pay her children’s expenses.

It doesn’t help that the anti-abortion movement thinks about conception in a rigidly naturalistic way, and therefore has practically no framework for dealing with the categorical disruptions implied by these “artificial” births. The great storm of public fury that has been kicked up by these octuplets is more than an annoyance at the water cooler. It is a vivid demonstration of the price that our country pays every day for the comforting moral clarity of the “right to life,” a fragile construct that has always been partly about not letting pregnant women “escape responsibility” for their actions. If a mother’s life goes to hell because she can’t afford to raise a child, well, she should have thought of that when she let herself get knocked up. The child becomes a sort of righteous punishment, not a person — and, in similar fashion, those “outraged” by Suleman’s story clearly hope that she (and, inevitably, her children) will have a rough time of it. It is the worship of motherhood, and the hatred of mothers.