National Catholic Register


The Church Looks at Octomom

Catholic Teaching Answers Questions Raised By Celebrated Octuplets

BY Stephen Vincent


March 15-21, 2009 Issue | Posted 3/6/09 at 11:03 AM


WHITTIER, Calif. — When a California single mother of six added eight more in one birth, a cultural obsession was born.

She was a guest on the “Today” show. Talking heads and Hollywood stars debated her decision. Dr. Phil called her to his home.

But what does the Church say?

Despite screaming headlines about “Octomom” that have served to dehumanize or demonize the California mother, Nadya Suleman, the Church teaches that she retains her human dignity, whatever mistakes she made and personality problems she may have. And all of the children she has given birth to — the eight she delivered on Jan. 26 and the six others she had previously birthed through implantation — are fully human and deserving of care and concern.

On the other hand, the Church teaches that the process from the beginning is intrinsically wrong and should never be pursued. In vitro fertilization (IVF), in fact, is a kind of Pandora’s box of bad effects, despite the precious little lives that are produced.

Suleman “was certainly right to refuse a ‘selective reduction,’ in which some of her babies would have been killed in utero,” Robert George, a Princeton professor and coauthor of the book Embryo, told the Register. “However, everything else she and those involved in facilitating her multi-pregnancy did was wrong. Even if one approves of IVF, as I do not, it was crazy to produce and implant eight or more embryos. It is hard to find anyone who defends what was done. It was unconscionably risky for the mother and for the children. This is one case in which the old saying ‘there ought to be a law,’ is literally true. Even if we are going to permit IVF, the law should strictly limit the number of embryos that can be created to the number that can be safely implanted, probably two.”

Explaining the Church’s balanced stand that in vitro fertilization is wrong but the resulting embryos have intrinsic human value, George said, “This is not to deny that couples who use IVF love their children; nor is it in any way to suggest that they cannot or will not be good parents. … But the Church is called to speak the truth — even when it is a hard truth. And so the Church has no choice but to note the moral defectiveness of certain means that may be employed to achieve the goal of parenthood.”

Dr. Thomas Hilgers, founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., and developer of NaPro natural methods for the treatment of infertility, said that the doctor who implanted the embryos is guilty of malpractice.

“He never should have subjected this woman to the dangers of a multiple pregnancy, nor the babies,” Hilgers told the Register. “We hear reports that all eight of the babies are doing well, and we certainly pray that they are, but if you check back in five years, you may find some with a disability. This is simply a fact of premature births of this kind.”

The irony, he claimed, is that Suleman “probably doesn’t have an infertility problem to start with. Women don’t get pregnant that easily with IVF — and never before with octuplets. The doctor who did this really engaged in medical malpractice, in my view — even if you are in favor of IVF.”

Human Dignity

The Church’s objection to in vitro fertilization is at least two-fold, as most recently outlined in the Vatican instruction Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), which was released last December. First, the process takes the creation of new human life out of the context of a loving relationship between spouses and places it in the venue of technological manipulation. In this way, the child is treated more as a “product” of science and human intervention than a unique person willed by God.

Second, in most in vitro fertilization procedures, “extra” embryos are created and preserved through deep freezing, to be used by the couple or individual or be discarded. Immense moral problems emerge from this, including the killing of innocent human life, the reduction of human embryos to mere biological material or “property,” and confused custody cases over the “rights” of the man who supplied the sperm and the woman who supplied the egg.

Outlining all these problems, Dignitas Personae states that “various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life” (No. 15).

Citing Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), the prescient Vatican instruction published 21 years earlier, Dignitas Personae states, “All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.”

Attention Seeker?

The Suleman story is perfect for the instant stardom of the Internet age because there is something to interest almost everyone and plenty to praise or condemn.

She is said to have an obsession with the actress Angelina Jolie, to whom she bears a resemblance, and some accuse her of bearing so many children to gain a superstar’s spotlight.

In any event, Suleman clearly seeks attention and acceptance. She agreed to post on the Internet a heated debate she had with her own mother, with whom she lives, over her decision to bear so many children. And she currently has an exclusive arrangement with a website to film her everyday activities and supply material for a daily blog.

In the Internet argument with her mother, Suleman expressed an admirable commitment to life by insisting that she never could have aborted any of the implanted embryos, yet she also seems to treat these tiny lives as possessions when she says she had initially “planned on growing one, at most two.”

Where Is Octodad?

Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly calls her deluded; syndicated columnists have delved into her psyche, and countless blogs have offered incessant analyses, links and conjectures over her mind and motivation.

Yet, an aspect of the story that has received less play was summed up in The Wall Street Journal headline of Feb. 20: “Where in the World Is Octodad?” Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, asked the question, adding, “Surely Ms. Suleman’s babies have a father. Yet his role in the baby-palooza is barely mentioned. … The reaction to [her] brood typifies our cultural ambivalence about fathers, an ambivalence fed in no small measure by the fertility industry.”

The purported sperm donor dad, Denis Beaudoin, did surface on the usual talk shows and YouTube videos, but Suleman has reportedly denied his paternity.

As Hymowitz points out, the purported father of all 14 of Suleman’s children had reportedly asked her to stop implanting the embryos that bear his genes after she delivered six of them. But he had no legal say, reduced as he was to a “chromosome factory.”

In addition, this celebration of a woman’s “autonomy” is taking place amid an epidemic of single motherhood, with all the disastrous outcomes for children that sociologists of every ideological stripe have identified, Hymowitz writes.

In a way, Suleman’s story highlights what may be a new form of male prostitution. For centuries, women have been paid to submit to male desire; today, men also have the opportunity to be paid to submit their sperm to the desire of women to have babies without commitment.

Helen Alvare, a family law professor at George Mason University Law School and former pro-life spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, said of the sperm bank situation, “One could analogize this to prostitution in the sense that both men and women treat bodies as unrelated to the integral well-being or development of persons.”

Both men and women, and society as a whole, stand to lose in the unregulated world of fertility technology that Nadya Suleman has brought to wider attention.

Stephen Vincent writes

from Wallingford, Connecticut.