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Birth of octuplets through fertility treatments sparks controversy

1 February 2009
Appeared in BioNews 493

Last Monday, eight babies - six boys and two girls - were born to a woman, whose identity has not been released, in Southern California at Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Centre. The babies were delivered by a team of 46 attending professionals within a span of five minutes by Caesarean section 9.5 weeks premature, with their weight ranging from 0.68-1.47kg. The babies are said to be stable but are expected to remain in hospital from several weeks up to six months. In addition to the new arrivals, the mother already has six children, including twins, all under the age of eight.

The event has attracted international attention as well as criticism regarding the medical ethics of implanting multiple embryos. Infants from multiple-births are more likely to be born premature, resulting in a significantly higher rate of death during the first month and accounting for more than half of infant death during the first year of life. Today's reproductive experts have the ability to avoid such high-risk pregnancies, which endanger the mother and commonly cause long-term health and developmental complications for the resulting children. Under US and UK national guidelines, doctors would usually refuse to implant any more than two embryos at once for a woman under 35.

Despite the guidance, some practitioners feel the final decision should be the mother's. 'Who am I to say that six is the limit?' Dr Jeffrey Steinberg, medical director of Fertility Institutes, commented, adding 'There are people who like to have big families'.

Dr James Grifo, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the New York University School of Medicine said he refuses to be 'a policeman for reproduction': 'I don't think it's our job to tell them how many babies they're allowed to have.'

Dr Harold Henry, director of maternal-fetal medicine at Kaiser, said that the mother declined selective fetal reduction to reduce the number of fetuses in order to improve the health and survival chances for the remaining fetuses. The LA Times spoke with the maternal grandmother, Angela Suleman, who said: 'What do you suggest she should have done? She refused to have them killed. That is a very painful thing'.

Ultimately, Henry commented, it is the mother's choice after a discussion about the risks and facts involved: 'The mother weighs those options, and she chooses the option based on spiritual or personal makeup'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Octuplets mother already has six children
The Guardian |  30 January 2009
Octuplets' mother already has twins, four other children
LA Times |  30 January 2009
Octuplets' mother, who already has six children, turned down selective abortion
The Times |  30 January 2009
Octuplets' mum 'already has six'
BBC News Online |  30 January 2009
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