As the octuplets born to a California woman turned one week old on Monday, the coos and praise that surrounded their successful delivery turned into cries of anger from fertility experts and the public.
The mother, identified as 33-year-old Nadya Suleman, reportedly had eight of her own previously frozen embryos implanted, despite already having six children under the age of eight, also reportedly conceived by in vitro fertilization.
Under guidelines issued 10 years ago by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), a woman Suleman’s age should have no more than two embryos implanted.
“While the early press coverage touted the successful delivery of the octuplets as a happy, joyful thing, high-order multiple births should never be considered a medical success story,” ASRM spokesman Sean Tipton said.
“It’s a complete failure when something like this happens, a poor reflection of what we do,” reproductive endocrinologist Suleena Kansal Kalra of the University of Pennsylvania said. “To put this many embryos back in a woman who is so young and had proven fertility is completely irresponsible.”
“A number of commentators are saying a woman with six kids should not be allowed medical treatment to have additional ones, and I think, at a common sense level, that makes good sense,” Tipton said.
“However, to make that work, that means someone is going to start deciding for other people how, when and why they can have children. That’s a very big step and one that we might not be prepared to take,” Tipton said.
Harish Sehdev, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Pennsylvania Hospital, called the decision to implant eight embryos in a woman who already has six children “insensitive and ignorant.”
Multiple-birth babies are often born prematurely — Suleman’s octuplets were born nine-and-a-half weeks early — which puts them at significantly greater risk of long-term health problems ranging from lung disease, neurological and gastro-intestinal complications to blindness, Sehdev said.
“When something like this happens, we pray that the babies are fine and mommy is fine, but we really have a problem when the press makes such a big deal about it ... because you get other people thinking they could also have eight babies at once,” said Sehdev, who also heads the prenatal diagnosis unit at Pennsylvania Hospital.
The ASRM has launched a probe into how Suleman became pregnant with octuplets and would “take appropriate action” if it is able to garner more details, the organization said in a statement on its Web site.
But if Suleman invokes patient confidentiality and asks her doctor to not cooperate with a probe, “nobody’s going to know about it,” Tipton said.
Internet chat forums were flooded with comments about the now mother of 14. Almost all of them slammed Suleman and the doctors who helped her get pregnant with octuplets.
“These little babies are being called the longest-living octuplets — does that tell you how fragile they are? This woman is a child abuser,” one comment on the ABC News Web site said.
“Wonderful mothers don’t purposely create EIGHT babies that may well have developmental disabilities for the rest of their lives — if they live,” said another, who called Suleman’s doctors “criminal physicians” who “should lose their license and be put in jail.”