Nearly (gasp!) two decades ago, my oldest nephews liked a book about baby farm animals. Each time I hear a story about the woman with fourteen kids, a disembodied line from that book flashes through my mind: "enough for all her hungry brood." I can't listen to bad morning radio shows whilst showering and commuting without hearing opinions about this woman's use of in-vitro fertilization to help her have fourteen kids, her reliance on public assistance, her singleness, her history of mental illness, her obsession with motherhood.
The story challenges our collective affinity for simplistic readings of current events. We want issues to fall into black-or-white, partisan categories. The environmentalist suggests that having fourteen kids drains resources (the disposable diapers alone...). The anti-welfare crusader sees this mom as a mythic archetype, the welfare queen. The moralist questions her lack of a husband and her use of fertility technologies. The medial ethicist critiques the fertility clinics who helped her reproduce. The pop culture junkie watches with bemusement as she gets her own series. The feminist questions the assumptions of all the aforementioned critics.
Does a poor, single woman have a fundamental right to as many kids as she wants? Do private companies have the right to provide her with technology to help her make that happen? Does a public spectacle--orchestrated in part by a team of publicists who represent the woman--help (via revenue) or hurt (via embarrassment) the family?
As lines from children's books flash through my mind, so do the faces of the thousands of unwanted kids in southeastern Michigan. My students and I have worked with foster care agencies in Detroit, for instance, who search desperately for good placements for babies, kids, and teens. Stories of violent foster families and unplaced kids sleeping in Department of Human Service building bathrooms fade as quickly as the stories of the octuplet mom inevitably will.
I would never advocate for repressive laws that strip the rights of adults to reproduce at will. I've read (and even taught) too many dystopic novels: Margaret Atwood, et al. But I do wonder how many parents-to-be--whether single or married, rich or poor, virile or sitting in a fertility clinic--even take a moment to think about the unwanted.
We live in a culture where asking an adult (especially if married and "financially secure") who has no kids "Why don't you have kids?" is socially acceptable. But asking a parent or parent-to-be "Why ARE you having kids?" is awkward at best and probably offensive. Personally, the "why don't you have kids?" question doesn't bother me at all. That's not my point. I'm just saying that the normative impulse leans toward reproduction and overlaps with other normative impulses: marry, be straight, have kids.
And then, out of nowhere, a story like the octuplet mom challenges those impulses. "Yes," the collective culture says to her, "we're glad you have kids and are heterosexual, but pay for the kids yourself. Oh yeah, and get married."