I’ve been trying to stay out of the Nadya Suleman story, which has been heavily sensationalized in the media, for a variety of reasons. The narrative surrounding the story has been really fascinating, on an intellectual level, but also horrifying, in the sense that it has laid bare a lot of prejudices which many people (including myself) hold on some level.
As most of my readers know, I am very opposed to fertility treatments, which is, I suppose, in contradiction of my pro-choice position, because fertility treatments are very bound up in personal choice and the right to control your reproductive process. One could argue that my opposition is, in fact, a logical inconsistency, and this story has really made me examine that position.
The thing is, I’m still really opposed to fertility treatments. I really think that they should not happen, in any circumstances, ever. But that doesn’t mean that I think they should be outlawed. (Which, I suppose, differentiates me from the anti-choice crowd.) I wish that we could recognize, as a society, that the use of fertility treatments is deeply problematic and questionable, and that we could decide, as a society, that it wouldn’t happen any more.
Here in California, there have been some proposals on the books in response to the Suleman story to limit fertility treatment. To mandate the number of embryos transplanted, or to take other steps to restrict access. And I’m opposed to these, in part because they are part of the ugly backlash going on, and in part because, yes, I think that they restrict freedom of choice.
From my (limited) understanding of fertility treatments, it is highly irresponsible to transfer eight embryos, and to allow a woman to carry them to term, rather than using selective reduction to reduce the pregnancy to a more manageable level. But, you know what? That’s ultimately the mother’s choice. If she understands the risks involved in a multiple pregnancy, including the high risk of miscarriage, birth defects, and other issues, and she chooses to take those risks, that’s ultimately her business, and the government should not be allowed to take that choice away.
I can’t help but wonder what the response had been if even one detail of Suleman’s life had been changed. If she had been obviously white, for example. If her name hadn’t sounded so suspiciously Middle Eastern. If she was solidly in the middle classes and able to afford to take care of her children. A lot of the narrative surrounding this case hasn’t been so much about the questionable decision to implant and keep way too many embryos, but it’s been about her color, and class. The octuplets are merely an excuse.
The rhetoric reminds me of the wailing and screaming about “welfare mothers,” who always seem to be black or brown in the media narrative. The attitude from lawmakers and people proposing restrictions on the fertility industry seems to be that a. women can’t make their own decisions and that b. brown/black women need to be protected from themselves (and society needs to be protected from them as well).
It’s been interesting to me to see even very staunchly pro-choice feminists decrying Suleman and her choices. I myself have fallen into the trap of expressing shock and horror at the number of children, doubt about her ability to care for them, and questions about her mental status. The same sort of questions that pompous conservative nutjobs are always leveling at women who have had abortions, the attitude that such women must automatically be damaged and mentally unstable. Maybe Suleman is just fine. Maybe she isn’t. Ultimately, that’s between her and her doctor.
This case has also really highlighted the growing conflicts between science and nature in a world where science is constantly pushing the boundaries. The initial response to the story was one of awe, amazement, and intense interest. Until people found out that the octuplets weren’t “natural” (and how could they be, really), and the ugly details started filtering out, at which point people started to turn on her. Here’s a woman who had the audacity to defy nature with science, while also being the wrong color and social class, and that must mean that she should be condemned.
Learning to identify your own logical inconsistencies is an important part of being a member of the adult world, I suppose, but that doesn’t make examining them any less uncomfortable.