They called it a "miracle" as Mandy Allwood, 31, proudly clutched her swelling belly. She has already chosen names for the precious bundle of eight babies she is carrying, conceived with the aid of fertility drugs. They include Cutie, Chas, Devlin and Buster.
But as she glowed with maternal pride, the octuplets have emerged as one of the greatest ethical tests of man-made science over nature. If doctors are going to play God, whom do they decide to bestow their scientific miracles upon?
The spotlight has fallen on Ms Allwood, from Solihull in the West Midlands; her partner, Paul Hudson, on pounds 47 in benefits a week since his lettings business collapsed; his mistress and her two sons whom he fathered; Ms Allwood's ex-husband, by whom she has a five-year- old son, Charles; and a trail of other complex domestic arrangements.
In the midst of it all, Ms Allwood, the latest client of the PR guru Max Clifford who is negotiating deals with the media for her and Mr Hudson worth up to pounds 1m over two years, declared: "I am the happiest woman in the world."
In a scenario as potentially tragic and farcical as a Mike Leigh film, the story of how the octuplets were conceived began at Liberty's night- club in the West Midlands. There Ms Allwood and Mr Hudson, 37, went on their first date after they met when she was a general manager with General Accident Property Services near Solihull.
Ms Allwood was still married to Simon Pugh, who ran a plastering business. She was in charge of lettings for General Accident, including the renting out of several of Mr Hudson's flats. The couple say they did not take to each other on the first meeting but he admired her professionalism.
He asked her to work for his business, Litchfield Estates in Erdington, Birmingham. She was given a pounds 1,000-a-month salary and a company BMW, and romance began to surface.
In 1994 she divorced Mr Pugh after eight years of marriage. The year before, she had had an abortion after being treated with drugs following a car crash. Mr Pugh now lives with his childhood sweetheart in Shirley in the West Midlands. He intends to seek custody of his son. "My son is in the middle of an extremely bizarre relationship," Mr Pugh said. "God knows what ideas are now filling his head about what family life is supposed to be like."
For a while, Ms Allwood and Mr Hudson had enjoyed a life of entrepreneurial riches. They had matching BMWs in silver and gold. But Mr Hudson's business collapsed and the couple went bankrupt last year. Her dream of having a child with himappeared to have ended when she had a miscarriage on Christmas Eve.
Ms Allwood says she has never resented Mr Hudson's decision to continue spending two nights a week with Maria Edwards, 28, his former girlfriend who lives in a council house in Hinckley, Leicestershire, with his two sons Zack and Kane, and her daughter.
Ms Edwards went on a holiday to Blackpool with Mr Hudson and their children two weeks ago, shortly after he discovered Ms Allwood was pregnant. Mr Hudson explained that he was a "free spirit" and Ms Allwood explained that she accepted the arrangement.
"Maria is not going to go away and I'm not going to stop Paul from seeing her, so I may as well accept it," she said. "We're both fiercely independent and that is one of the things that attracted me to Paul in the first place."
Mr Hudson said: "I'll never desert Maria or Mandy. But I couldn't live with either of them. I'm too in love with life to do anything else. I don't believe that makes me a bad dad. My kids are my life, my number one priority ... I'm determined to support them, no matter how many babies survive - I'll be there for them."
The conception of octuplets was a shock for Mr Hudson. He had not been aware that Ms Allwood had taken two doses of a fertility drug or that she had reportedly ignored doctors' advice not to have sex at a critical time in the treatment. He asked her to consider an abortion before they discovered she was carrying eight babies.
Ms Allwood's father, from whom she is partially estranged, was surprised by the arrangement. Brian Allwood, 60, an electrician, said: "I have been to her home only once, several months ago, and I cannot even remember which road it's on."
In the meantime, Mr Hudson has adapted to his new role as the father of eight unborn children, and the couple, who are staying at a secret address, are coping with the media attention well. Mr Hudson said: "Our eight babies were obviously meant to be."
They are also relaxed about their life and times unfolding for all to see, according to Mr Clifford. "They were totally aware of what was going to happen in the media, ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends - they're not shocked," he said "They have been very open about the whole thing. We sat down and talked it all through in Wimbledon village. Mandy is totally aware of Paul's lifestyle and Paul is totally aware of Mandy's lifestyle."
He added: "Mandy just wants to do what is best for the babies now. But if she can have eight healthy children, that's what she wants to do. The most important thing is the health of the babies and the health of Mandy. It's not a question of having eight babies at all costs, it's a question of if she can have eight healthy children she will."
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