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New born octuplets: A modern morality tale

It was a story that cheered recession-hit America: the survival of octuplets. But, as details emerge of the six children she already has, her unconventional circumstances, and 'obsession' with giving birth, serious questions are now being raised about fertility treatment

A lot of statistics came with the story of the young Californian mother who gave birth to a spectacular litter last week. The first was the number of babies involved: a magnificent eight. Seven was the number she had been told to expect. We learnt early on that 46 doctors and nurses were on the delivery team – it made you wonder whether there was room for the father to witness the miracle.

By yesterday, we finally had the identity of the woman, Nadya Suleman, 33 (although ABC News was calling her Nadya Doud), along with a few other numbers. America no longer knew whether to praise this feat of fecundity – it is only the second time anyone in the US has borne eight babies, with every one surviving – or condemn it. These are times of parsimony, after all.

Estimated cost of nappies for eight over a calendar year? $7,000 (£4,800). Fathers present at birth or waiting at home? Zero. Reported income of mother? Possibly zero also. Then on Friday came the most disturbing figure of all: six. That is the number of children, aged two to seven, the woman already has – all through in vitro fertilisation.

Angela, the children's grandmother, said her daughter had always been nuts about children and had sought fertility treatment because "her Fallopian tubes are plugged up". Things then went a bit out of control, she acknowleged. "Octuplets. Dear God! I wish she could have been a kindergarten teacher."

The question is how Nadya managed to have so many embryos implanted. Was it true, as some reported, that she worked in a fertility clinic?

For a few news cycles at least, the joy of the nation seemed unalloyed. Reality television is so contrived these days; real reality is always more gripping. And this is a show that could run and run. It is fair to assume that a producer somewhere is already trying to sign Nady Suleman up for a multi-year deal. We are not acquainted with these babies yet, but we will be. In all likelihood we will watch them grow up – if Nadya co-operates.

And there is money at stake. Ask Jon and Kate Gosselin, the parents of twins and sextuplets, who have their own show on the TLC Network, Jon and Kate Plus Eight. In return for publicity on the show, they get freebies all the time. Heavens, Kate has recently had a free tummy tuck.

The risk for Nadya, however, is that the country may already be changing its stance on her. She will be watched on TV only if her story remains a miracle, not a mistake, and America is split down the middle on this one.

With each passing press conference, the doctors at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Bellflower who performed the deliveries become less puffed and more defensive. They wanted us to know that the mother had come to them after she had become pregnant. And yes, with eight foetuses she had undergone fertility treatment. And yes, they had suggested she selectively terminate at least some of them.

That Ms Suleman eschewed all such options means that, among those opposed to abortion, she will always have a constituency who considers her heroic. Having more babies is always more good. That, however, is definitely not the view being expressed this weekend by most fertility experts in the US.

Multiple births are "presented on TV shows as a 'Brady Bunch moment'," said Arthur Caplan, bioethics chairman at the University of Pennsylvania, referring to the Seventies TV series. "They're not." He and others in the fertility profession were yesterday worrying about a backlash thanks to the Suleman case that could lead to regulations governing the number of babies clinics could allow mothers to bear. Mr Caplan believes the physician who looked after Ms Suleman went far beyond the bounds of reasonable practice. "Anyone who transfers eight embryos should be arrested for malpractice," he said.

But back to the mother. She, it seems, has been divorced since January last year, though her former husband is not the father of the six children she already has. She recently finished her studies in, appropriately, child development, and lives with her mother, who is herself divorced and recently overcame personal bankruptcy. Her ex-husband works in Iraq and still supports the family.

When she sought treatment, in other words, Nadya was rich in offspring already but not in worldly goods. She and her family are not on welfare. However, the hospital bill for delivering and caring for the eight babies, born nine weeks prematurely and delivered by Caesarian section, could reach $1m. This is why insurance premiums keep going up for the rest of America. Babies born so early with so many siblings usually have continuing medical and psychological problems, which means more money.

Where are they now? The Walton sextuplets

Janet and Graham Walton from Wallasey, Merseyside, had the world's first all-female sextuplets. The girls, conceived after 13 rounds of fertility treatment, were born healthy at 31 weeks in November 1983 and spent less than two months in hospital. Five of the girls, now 25, still live with their parents. Hannah is going to be a teacher; Kate works in IT; Sarah works in a health centre, and Ruth works at Manchester airport. Jenny, the sixth, is in cabaret in Majorca.

Mr Walton said: "If they all left tomorrow, I wouldn't know what to do with myself without the noise. I love the buzz of a big family. We would be totally lost without them."