Calling a Truce on the Octuplets Mom

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Nadya Suleman, the woman who gave birth to octuplets last week

Let me get this straight. When the McCaughey septuplets were born in 1997, President Clinton called to congratulate the parents, who were given a free 12-passenger van, Pampers for life, furniture, food and a custom-built house. Last spring, when Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar got pregnant with their 18th child, they announced it on the Today show, and their reality-TV show launched that fall. When Nadya Suleman, 33, gave birth to octuplets on Jan. 26, she got revulsion, ridicule and death threats. A talk-radio host who called her a freak said his listeners were prepared to boycott any company that helped out mother or babies. Jimmy Kimmel declared that "golden retrievers do not have that many kids."

We now have a face and a voice to go with the object of our wrath: Suleman, who bears an ironic passing resemblance to celebrity multimom Angelina Jolie, sat down with NBC's Ann Curry to start to tell her story; the full interviews will air today and Tuesday. Suleman said plenty that will make people squirm even more. But she also exposes how publicly divided and personally judgmental we are about decisions that are, under any normal circumstances, none of our business. (See pictures of the annual Twins' Day festival.)

"All I wanted was children," Suleman told Curry. "That's all I ever wanted in my life."

So what is it about her choices — the how, the who and the why — that gets people so riled up? Remember that for an instant, there was celebration and wonder at the news of healthy octuplets. But it vanished quickly once we learned that the mother was already the single parent of six, living with her own mother, who had to file for bankruptcy last year. First, she seemed to have violated some unspoken rule we have about fertility treatments, the miracle technologies that nuzzle up against so many ethical lines. We can create embryos in a dish, pick out the best ones, hire surrogates to carry them, freeze and discard the extras, all processes that make at least some people somewhat uncomfortable but that we accept because of our understanding of the deep desire to be a parent — a need that for many ranks somewhere with food and sleep, only it lives less in the body than in the soul. Even the pro-life movement hasn't tried to outlaw fertility treatment: anyone who has ever watched someone they care about run the fertility gauntlet thinks twice before getting in the way. (Read "A Brief History of Multiple Births.")

But Suleman was already a mom, six times over. So the first wave of anger was aimed at her doctor, for implanting so many embryos in a woman who was already anything but childless. She says she used the same doctor, but in an interview Sunday with, Suleman's mother Angela, a retired teacher, said she and her husband pleaded with Nadya's doctor not to help her get pregnant again — so Nadya went and found a new one, who implanted six more embryos (two split and became twins). The California Medical Board is reportly investigating whether there was a "violation of the standard of care."

The next wave of anger hit her, as though she should have been content with her first one or two or three miracle babies rather than going on to mass-manufacture them. Maybe this is why she is vilified for having 14 children, while the Duggars, members of an Evangelical movement called Quiverful that views children as God's special blessing, are celebrated for having 18 the old-fashioned way.

See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.

Read "The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z."

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