Octomom: How Many Embryos Is Too Many Embryos?

There's a reason Nadya Suleman is itching for a fight in A.C.

Nadya Suleman, better known as Octomom, has gotten a two-week reprieve from the auction of her home. She now has a few extra days to look for housing for herself and her brood of 14 kids, all conceived through in vitro fertilization. She has no husband, no job, no money and no expectation of any in the near future. (She’s looking for a challenger for a “celebrity” boxing match in Atlantic City.) Apparently, she had none of these normally expected attributes when she was implanted through IVF. The crazy nutcase doctor who pumped her full of embryos, Michael Kamrava, lost his license to practice medicine last July due to his overzealousness. In addition to Ms. Suleman’s case, he once implanted seven embryos into a 48-year-old woman and proceeded with IVF on a cancer patient. Where is the outrage at the fertility clinic physicians who practice this insanity? They claim they are only complying with the heartfelt request of patients. At least, that’s their story. I’m not buying it.

Every article and resource that I’ve been able to find about this issue claims that fertility doctors are under extreme pressure to increase the likelihood of success of each IVF cycle. Their patients are desperate and exert undo pressure to implant multiple embryos. Are you kidding me? Since when does a doctor disregard professionalism and medical training just because the patient says “please”? They don’t. They agree to do it because the cost of IVF is more than $12,000 per cycle and is not covered by insurance. Most patients know that, financially, they may have only one chance to get it right and so they seek out a clinic that will agree to implant multiple embryos. In addition, pregnant patients equal increased success rate for a clinic. They do it because it’s prudent—from a business perspective. More than 50,000 births a year begin through IVF, and fertility in this country is now a $1 billion-plus industry.

Big business for sure, but also dangerous business. Multiple births, especially those in older women, have an extremely high risk of birth defects and chromosomal anomalies. And even if multiples are born healthy, it places an often insurmountable burden on family, financially and physically, and on society. Who do you think is supporting Ms. Suleman’s children? In addition, the divorce rate is higher among couples who have multiples.

Public outcry after the birth of the eight younger Sulemans has focused attention on just this issue, and clinics are starting to look at the wisdom of multiple births. Research is underway into better methods of identifying viable embryos thereby reducing the pressure to implant so many. From a societal viewpoint, for the health and well being of these IVF babies and with regard to the emotional burden of those unable to conceive naturally, let’s hope this process can be improved.