19 February 2009

The Suleman Octuplets

The Objectivist
Unfair Criticism of Nadya Suleman and her Octuplets
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 16, 2009

On January 26, 2009, 33-year-old Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets. She already had six children and so the eight gave her fourteen. There was widespread criticism of her decision and her physician’s (Michael Kamrava’s) decision to help her by the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF). There were six embryos implanted in her and two embryos split, thereby producing eight fetuses. After one month, five fetuses were evident. She was given the option to abort some and decided against it. Medical guidelines recommend the implantation of two for people who fit her profile. Suleman justified the multiple implantations on the basis that it prevented the frozen embryos from being destroyed.

Suleman is divorced and does not currently have a job. She injured her back at work and between 2002 and 2008 received $167,908 in disability payments. She currently lives with her parents and children. Her maternal grandmother claims that she has contributed nothing toward housing or food costs. Her parents filed for bankruptcy in 2008. They abandoned a house in 2007 and admit to having nearly $1 million dollars in liabilities.

The government gives her $490 a month in food stamps along with disability payments for three of her initial six children. One of her sons is autistic, a second suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and a third has delayed speech and some autistic symptoms. The Associated Press reports that in California, a low-income family can receive Social Security payments of up to $793 a month for each disabled child. Three children would amount to $2,379. When the food stamps and disability payments are combined, she still receives up to $34,428 a year. It’s worth noting that this is less than parents in New York receive if they have two or more children in New York’s public schools.

The Associated Press also reports that the octuplets' medical costs have not been disclosed, but according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2006 in California, the average cost for a premature baby's hospital stay in California was $164,273. Eight times that is $1.3 million. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cost of raising 14 children through age 17 ranges from $1.3 million to $2.7 million.

The criticism of Suleman has been intense, but hard to follow. One criticism is that the desire to have such a large family reflects mental illness. I see little evidence for such a claim and in any case it isn’t a reason to be angry with her. If this criticism were correct, then other large families would be subject to such criticisms and no one seems to want to make this claim.

A second criticism is that she acted wrongly toward the octuplets. However, if she had not implanted them, they would have died. Assuming that their lives are worth living, she benefitted them. Even if one thinks that embryos are not individuals with interests, it is hard see how they would have been better off not existing.

A third criticism is that she acted wrongly toward her first six children. Perhaps, but I’m not sure that a parent has a duty to have more children only if it will benefit the previous ones. This is particularly true if one adopts a pro-life position (for example, an embryo has the same status as a seven-year-old child) and the way to benefit previous children is to allow other ones to die, albeit in embryonic form.

The real criticism seems to be that she harmed the taxpayers, by forcing them to pay for her children. If we add up the cost of the premature babies’ stay ($1.3 million) and the cost to raise them ($2.7 million), we end up with a total of $4 million. This criticism is hard to follow. Pork-barrel Congressmen like the recently indicted Ted Stevens (R-AK), former Klansman Robert Byrd (D-WV), and tax cheat Charles Rangel (D-NY) waste this in five minutes of committee work and we don’t see the same outpouring of hatred toward them. In addition, the average low-skill household sucks hard at the government teat. According to the Heritage Foundation, over the life of the household the poor take $1.3 million more in benefits than they pay out. Nary a word. On one estimate by philosopher Michael Levin, as a group, black households receive $75 billion more in welfare benefits than they pay in (using figures from the 1990’s). Again, silence. In New York, parents who have three special-education children can expect to receive more than $60,000 a year in education benefits from the taxpayer, not counting the bag of goodies that all parents get ($1,000 per child child-tax credit, child-care deductions, etc.) receive. More silence. But Suleman has a lot of children and out come the long knives.

Even if it was wrong to waste taxpayer money, it depends on what you get for it and it would be an interesting argument to hear Suleman’s critics explain whether they think the education and well-being of 14 children has less worth than $4 million dollars. Using President Obama’s arguments for the bank bailout, car company bailout, and stimulus package ($1.5 trillion), we could view this as part of the stimulus.

There has also been widespread criticism of the physician. Recently, the Medical Board of California announced that it was going to investigate the physician on the question of whether his treatment of Suleman violated its standard of care. The Los Angeles Times reports that this doctor is also involved in another controversy. He is alleged to have given fertility treatment to a 49-year-old woman who is uninsured, five months pregnant with quadruplets, and hospitalized. Apparently, at least seven embryos were used when the woman only wanted was one child. One can understand the criticism if he endangered Suleman’s life or those of the embryos. However, this does little to explain the massive venom directed at Suleman. In addition, if the physician made Suleman aware of these risks and she still wanted to continue, the criticism of him fades because she assumed the risk. Again, the real criticism seems directed at the cost.

This case brings up an interesting proposal that has been bouncing around academic circles for a few decades. In different proposals, philosopher Hugh LaFollette, psychiatry professor John Westman, and psychology professor David Lykken have proposed requiring parental licensing. Consider LaFollette’s argument. He points out that some parents neglect their children, physically abuse them, or kill them. In addition, children born to incompetent parents impose costs on society via their offspring’s criminality, welfare usage, out-of-wedlock births, etc. LaFollette proposes that couples should be required to obtain a license indicating that they are competent in child rearing before they are permitted to have children. In defense of his claim, LaFollette points out that we often require that people get licenses to be a physician, lawyer, or pharmacist. We don’t even let people drive without one. He notes that the state evaluates parents who want to adopt and is therefore already in the business of screening out those who are unfit to be parents. LaFollette argues that unlicensed parents might have their newborns taken away and given up for adoption or to a foster home. It is an interesting question whether Suleman would have received her license. My guess is that she would.

Many of us hate the spendthrift government officials that dole out our money like manna from heaven. However, the hatred and venom directed at Suleman is harder to understand. She didn’t make the rules or victimize anyone. She just wanted to have a large family.