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  Octuplets and Other Babies

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, January 12 1999; Page Z06

A year's supply of groceries and diapers. Prime-time appearances on television. A new car. A new house. A ton of cards and letters, prayers and donations. America loves to create celebrities and the famous record-breaker of the moment is Nkem Chukwu, the Houston woman who gave birth to octuplets.

Chukwu, 27, gained her stardom by having the womb with the mostest. The Nigerian-born woman and her husband, Iyke Louis Udobi, beat the record of Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey of Carlisle, Iowa, the reigning champions of multiple births who became the parents of septuplets in 1997. The McCaugheys enjoyed a year of worldwide fame--their new house with seven bedrooms and 15 closets has become a tourist attraction, their experiences are memorialized in their book "Seven From Heaven."

The year before, Michelle and Norman Haner of Albany, N.Y., won the baby sweepstakes with sextuplets and Beech-Nut offered to feed the infants for 18 months.

What mother wouldn't like all this fame and financial support for her offspring? Society seems to favor the child born as one of a gang over the way most infants are born--as a single birth. But isn't this a mixup of priorities?

For all the drama and novelty of multiple births, there's something grotesque about the public's heroine worship of "Wonder Moms" and these tiny celebrity tots. The circus of fame surrounding record-breaking multiple births turns the truly wondrous experience of having a baby into some kind of competitive "birth-off," like the community bake-off to see who can get the most cupcakes out of the oven.

Far from being a medical miracle, a pregnancy with multiple fetuses more often leads to medical disaster. In a much publicized case in 1996, a British woman who was pregnant with octuplets insisted on giving birth to all of them. None of them made it.

The hazards don't end with a successful birth. Multiples of three or more are usually born about six weeks early and are at much higher risk of eye and lung problems as well as neurological and behavioral disorders. Many of these problems become lifelong disabilities, a tremendous stress on families.

To be sure, medicine has made enormous strides in saving high-risk babies, and all of the Wonder Couples to make headlines have been publicly grateful. "I was so thankful to God because that was what I wished for," said Chukwu in Houston.

But the current boom in multiple births--a six-fold increase in 25 years--is not about luck or Mother Nature. It's about the use, and some experts would argue the misuse, of fertility treatments.

Nkem Chukwu, Bobbi McCaughey and Michelle Haner all took fertility drugs to stimulate their ovaries to produce eggs, according to news reports. While these drugs have helped many women conceive, their use needs to be carefully prescribed and monitored.

"Having this much hyperstimulation is not safe," cautions Florence P. Haseltine, a founding member of the Society for the Advancement of Women's Health Research and director of population research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The drugs have side effects, and when a woman carries so many fetuses, she faces the risk of rupturing her uterus.

Is there a way to stop the celebrity train of multiple births in the fertility sweepstakes?

Specialists in this field are already trying to curb the excess of multiple births caused by the technology of assisted reproduction. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine has designed voluntary guidelines for fertility clinics to reduce the risk of having triplets or more. The guidelines limit the number of embryos typically implanted in the womb, for example, for those couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF), in which conception takes place in the laboratory and the resultant embryos are transferred to the uterus.

Use of fertility drugs is more difficult to control. Any physician can prescribe a legally approved drug for infertility. But not all doctors are trained in reproductive endocrinology to monitor the patients on these very powerful drugs. Women who produce large numbers of eggs are often encouraged not to try to get pregnant during that cycle.

The burden is not just on physicians. Patients also bear responsibility. Many infertile couples want to have a child so badly that they don't consider the risks of some of the treatments. They seek out the physician who will prescribe what they want.

Finally, some of the blame rests with the media and a celebrity-seeking public. Everyone falls all over the Wonder Mom and Super Dad of the moment, yet society ignores the needs of many parents and their children the rest of the time. The fabled spirit of American generosity comes through in a crisis when celebrity tots are fighting for their lives in the neonatal intensive care unit. But what of the other babies in the same unit whose lives hang by a thread? What of the many babies who are born out of the limelight?

Offers of baby food, diaper service and medical care--not to mention prayers and congratulatory wishes--are a boon to multiples who make news. What if every baby could have these essentials?

There are many public and private programs aimed at helping young families, and every political leader pays lip service to the needs of children. But statistics tell another story. More than 10 million children are without health insurance. In most of these households, the head of the family has a job. Despite new initiatives to cover uninsured children, a significant number go without basic medical services.

The outpouring of support for the Houston multiples is a welcome sign of the public's love of children. It just shouldn't be limited to celebrities.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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