It was a midwinter miracle; eight babies born to a single mother and every one of them delivered alive. For a nation enduring its deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the tale was a welcome relief from bail-outs and bankruptcies. But this weekend, as the journalistic pack chases an altogether darker dimension to the story of Nadya Suleman, the feel-good factor has suddenly vanished.
The birth of Suleman’s eight babies – six boys and two girls – was clearly an extraordinary event. Only one previous case of eight surviving babies had ever been recorded in the US. Yet as the eccentricity of Suleman’s background and biography emerges, America is suddenly recoiling in shock. Far from being a heart-warming tale of wonder, the more that becomes known about the Suleman family, the more it seems something very disturbing has occurred. Public reaction has quickly turned from joy to shock and anger.
By last night, it was clear that Suleman is not an infertile woman who sought medical help to have children. The 33-year-old Californian already has six children. She is single and has no visible means of support for her current family, let alone the additional eight babies that now give her enough offspring to field a football team with three substitutes.
In fact, Suleman still lives with her parents. Her family has revealed that she may have serious mental-health problems and be addicted to having children. Her own mother, Angela Suleman, told one Associated Press reporter: “[She] is not evil, but she is obsessed with children. She loves children, she is very good with children, but obviously she overdid herself.”
Angela Suleman also revealed that her daughter’s obsession with children caused her considerable stress, and led her to seek help from a psychologist, who had told her to order her daughter out of the house.
“Maybe she wouldn’t have had so many kids then, but she is a grown woman,” Angela said. “I feel responsible and I didn’t want to throw her out.”
The case of the Suleman octuplets is now sending shockwaves through the medical fertility community. Few reputable doctors can understand how a healthy mother-of-six could have been allowed to have fertility treatment that resulted in octuplets without serious questions arising about the mother’s mental health, her capacity to raise such a large family or the huge medical dangers involved in giving birth to so many babies at once.
The family has now taken refuge behind the curtains of its modest three-bedroom suburban home in Whittier, a town near Los Angeles. Usually in these situations, the proud parents parade before the cameras, appear on talk shows and land lucrative sponsorship deals with baby-products firms.
But when Nadya Suleman’s father, Edward, briefly emerged, he did not appear full of the joys of enlarging his family with more grandchildren. “I wish it happens to you people, so you go through hell,” he snapped at the media throng as he unloaded bags of shopping from his car. It was later revealed that Edward was considering going back to his native Iraq – where he has worked as a contractor – in order to raise some cash for the family. As the bidding war begins for Suleman’s story, the quickest and most likely route to financial security is likely to be a publishing contract.
The money seems to be desperately needed. Details of the family’s finances suggest that the Sulemans are already struggling with the load of looking after six children and are ill-prepared for the arrival of eight more.
Court records in nearby San Bernardino show that Suleman’s mother filed for bankruptcy last year, claiming $1m in liabilities as a result of a bad housing investment. At the same time, the records hint at an unusual personal history for the family. They show that Suleman – who changed her name from Nadya Doud in 2001 – divorced her husband, Marcos Gutiérrez, a year ago. Gutiérrez, however, may not be the father of her first six children, because the divorce filing indicates no children were produced from the marriage.
In fact, birth certificates name one “David Solomon” as the father of her eldest four children. It also seems that Suleman had been living with her parents, not her husband, for the past eight years, at a variety of addresses. However, her own parents, who still live together, are also divorced, having legally separated in Las Vegas in 1999.
Suleman herself seems to have little employment history. Neighbours have reported that she worked as a psychiatric technician before she began having children. After that, she attended college, studying child development. She graduated with a bachelor of science degree and returned to do a masters. She last went to a classroom in the spring of 2008.
But even more mysterious than the family’s history are the details of how Suleman became impregnated. Officials at Kaiser Permanente, where a 46-strong medical team delivered her eight children, have said she first appeared there when she was already three months pregnant. Yet it seems that the fertility clinic that implanted Suleman with so many embryos was going against current medical practice. Leaving aside the wisdom of treating a single mother with six children, it is dangerous to implant so many embryos in a woman so young. The likelihood of all those embryos taking hold is much higher in younger mothers and so most doctors would only implant one or two embryos.
Then there is the question of why doctors allowed Suleman to keep all eight embryos once they took hold in her womb, despite the enormous risks to her: even having triplets puts a woman and her babies at huge risk of death or serious injury.
Medical experts across America have queued up to express their rage. “If this resulted from an IVF treatment, we can say that transferring eight embryos in an IVF cycle is well beyond our guidelines,” said Dale McClure, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Meanwhile, Arthur Wisot, a fertility doctor in Los Angeles, raised a further prospect. “I cannot imagine that any of the mainstream practices in the Los Angeles area were involved in this. I would guess… she either went out of the country or went to a practice that flies below the radar,” he told a TV reporter.
All the drama has left many questions still unanswered as the eight babies at the centre of the controversy recover in hospital.
They are all doing well. But if the American public was looking for hope and inspiration in the face of tough times, the Suleman octuplets will have provided little in the way of light relief.