Birth of the California Octuplets Brings New Scrutiny to Fertility Industry

By Eliza Strickland | February 12, 2009 2:05 pm

in vitro fertilizationThe recent birth of octuplets in California has riveted the nation’s attention with the strange story of Nadya Suleman, who had six young children at home but went back to a fertility clinic for more. The 33-year-old Suleman says she used in vitro fertilization to have six embryos implanted, and that two of those embryos split into twins. But the incident has shone a bright light on the $1 billion fertility industry, and has many people wondering about the ethics of implanting so many embryos simultaneously. The California Medical Board says it is investigating the doctor who implanted Suleman…. The consequences could range from a reprimand to loss of medical license [CBS News].

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine adopted guidelines in 2008 encouraging the transfer of only one embryo for women under 35, and no more than two, except in extraordinary circumstances. The guidelines allow more for older women, up to a maximum of five. But unlike some other countries, the United States has no laws to enforce those guidelines [The New York Times]. Given the expense of each attempt at in vitro fertilization and the fact that not all implanted embryos develop successfully, many women prevail upon their doctors to implant multiple embryos–according to federal statistics, only 11 percent of in vitro procedures in the United States involve a solitary embryo.

Fertility doctors say that higher-order multiple births (defined as three or more babies born together) are dangerous for babies and the mother. Infants born prematurely face the risk of breathing problems and brain injuries that may cause permanent disability. Problems in premature babies, including learning disabilities or cognitive delays, are often not apparent until years after their births [Los Angeles Times]. The California octuplets were born about nine weeks early, were extremely small (the tiniest baby was 1 pound, 8 ounces), and originally couldn’t breathe on their own, but they have reportedly been doing well in the hospital.

Other doctors note that women who come to fertility clinics are often under considerable emotional stress as they may have been battling infertility for some time, and say that part of the doctor’s job is to assess the woman’s mental condition. Dr. Daniel Potter, a fertility doctor in California, says the doctor must consider the health of the patient and her potential babies first, before considering the patient’s wishes. “If someone came in and wanted to transfer six embryos in a situation like we’re talking about, we have an obligation to protect the patient and not let the patient do things that are unreasonable,” Dr. Potter said [The New York Times].

Related Content:
80beats: Leftover Embryos at Fertility Clinics Pose Troubling Questions for Patients
DISCOVER: How Old Is Too Old to Have a Baby?
DISCOVER: Human in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Kelly D.

    The fertility clinic that is responsible for implanting this woman to begin with ought to be made to pay for the hospitalization of these poor babies… the mother is on welfare (despite her claims she isn’t) and is single, with no job and won’t marry (or let see) the father of all of her 14 kids. They need to start doing better psychological testing as well… she’s obsessed with Angelina Jolie and is using her student loans (which I always thought was supposed to be used to pay for your education, not so you could have babies by the half-dozen or more, stupid me!) to help raise her other 6 kids. Three of THOSE six already are on SSI, they all have disabilities. She’s expecting Medi-cal, the State’s welfare medical insurance, to pay the hospital from 1.5 to 3 million dollar price tag.
    She’s crazy if she thinks her job (the one she thinks she’ll get after she finishes her schooling) will support all 14 kids. She’s already taken the State disability program for thousands…

  • KIM PIERCE

    I AGREE WITH KELLY D. THIS WOMAN AND HER DOCTOR/S SHOULD ALL HAVE SOME KIND OF PUNISHMENT AND BE USED FOR EXAMPLE FOR LAWS AGAINST SUCH BEHAVIORS IN FUTURE. WHY THEY NEED SUCH LAWS IS BEYOND ME. THIS IS AN OBVIOUS DO NOT CONSIDER NOT TO MENTION ACTUALLY CONVINCE A “PROFESSIONAL” TO FOLLOW THROUGH ON. I MEAN TALK ABOUT BRAIN DONORS. LETS NOT GIVE THESE BRAINS TO ANYONE. POOR KIDS HAVE LITTLE CHANCE AS IS.

  • Maggie

    I can’t help but think that we’re playing with Pandora’s Box when it comes to reproduction. In addition to cloning, I think that we are needlessly altering nature’s delicate balance when we allow a human to have a litter of babies. Some things aren’t meant to be changed, I believe. Advances in medicine are wonderful so that we can cure illnesses and prevent PREMATURE death, but when we unnecessarily alter the population because someone just wants even more kids for some reason, it goes beyond sensible, ethical practice. We are already altering it when we extend life beyond its natural limits; why add to the population even more with infants who may be challenged in the beginning, causing more need for life saving measures, etc., etc. Where does it end? What’s next?

  • Asya

    Well said Maggie. The thing is, humans have by nature, two breasts…because the LIMIT is twins. If we were meant to have so many babies at once, well, you know where I am getting at. I can understand undergoing fertility treatments as a last resort, but not so you can start your own little league team. This woman is clearly not all there. Her own mother sold her out for cripes sakes. I used to think it was weird for older women, in their fifties to seek fertility help. But now, I don’t care how old the mother is so long as she’s not on a respirator and not deranged. The future already looks like a scary place.

  • Holly

    Maggie and Asya-

    People can’t just do fertility treatments because they want to have a huge litter. The only reason someone does fertility treatments is because they can’t have them naturally often from health issues like PCOS and even Hypothyroid. You have to have tried naturally for a certain amount of time (a year or more), then try meds like clomid, then try natural IUI, then injections with IUI, then in-vitro. This is a heart breaking and incredibly expensive process to go through. No one chooses to do this just because they want a lot of kids nor could they afford it.

    If you can have kids naturally it is easy to judge, but you have no idea how difficult it is for those of us who can’t. Science helps alot of us in a safe way. Often without in-vitro.

    I do agree that the woman in question should not have undergone this when already having 6 kids she can barely support and her doctor is in the wrong here. They shouldn’t be transferring that many embryos. However, what happened is very, very rare. Most of the time fertility treatments result in singletons and twins – you just hear about the extreme cases on the news. This is certainly a sad case and brings up a lot of ethical issues. If you explore this topic more you will find that most of the time it is done in an ethical way for woman who have legitimate infertility issues.

  • Ruby Drash

    My husband has devoted his life to mentally challenged children. He is wondering if a study is anticipated that will examine the lives of the newly born octuplets for cognitive delay. Do you have any information on this? Thank you. Ruby E. Drash

  • Shawna

    This was carried out for completely selfish reasons with no regard whatsoever for the well-being and life that these children will lead. Just because we have the medical technology to do something doesn’t mean that we “should”. I am so ashamed of the doctor(s) who made this decision. I’m sure that most medical professionals are embarrased by this blatant negligence.

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