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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Those Obscene Octuplets

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 02/03/09 at 12:56 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Greetings from California, where, as is now very widely known, people do crazy things with the help of doctors, up to and including giving birth to children 7 through 14 at the same time.

Since most people’s interest in the Guinness Book of World Records begins to wane by age 11, it’s surprising to me that the Suleman octuplets have created such an enormous scandal. They are an inescapable subject across completely different workplaces, social settings, and social classes. The story has been told by nearly everyone, major media included, in an emotional register that goes all the way from outrage to very angry mockery.

How will she (Nadya) pay for the family? Why is she so “obsessed” with having children? Why would she have more children if it meant that her mother would speak disapprovingly of her? Why would a doctor assist with the process, despite having taken some kind of Greek oath early on? Where’s Dad?

At first, this story struck me as merely another case of something small getting a lot of media time, a category that also includes sensational murders and descriptions of how the First Family relaxes. That was my initial reaction; as I continued to bump into the story again and again, I was struck by the fact that it is really obscene, in the sense of an event or practice that attracts hatred and disgust exceeding any legitimate objection. Suleman certainly strikes me as foolish, but why does her decision strike so many Americans as obscene?

The simplest answer is that she is bringing a huge number of children into the world during an economic depression. Even though there is little evidence that Suleman is currently penniless, we worry for the future of all those children because right now the future seems bleak, period. The ur-mother becomes a source of anxiety, rather than a symbol of American vitality.

I think the meaning of the event goes deeper, though. Look at how Yahoo! News reported the story:

There were frozen embryos left over after her previous pregnancies and her daughter didn’t want them destroyed, so she decided to have more children.

Her mother and doctors have said the woman was told she had the option to abort some of the embryos and, later, the fetuses. She refused.

Her mother said she does not believe her daughter will have any more children.

“She doesn’t have any more (frozen embryos), so it’s over now,” she said. “It has to be."

Suleman actually played by the rules of the anti-abortion movement. She treated each of her fertilized embryos as a human individual possessing a right to life, and refused to either destroy the embryos or abort the fetuses. The whole event was set in motion by a perfectly justifiable procedure—she couldn’t have had any children without medical help—and carried forward by an ideological way of interpreting fertilization and pregnancy that has nothing to do with such concerns as the whereabouts of the father, or her ability to pay her children’s expenses.

It doesn’t help that the anti-abortion movement thinks about conception in a rigidly naturalistic way, and therefore has practically no framework for dealing with the categorical disruptions implied by these “artificial” births. The great storm of public fury that has been kicked up by these octuplets is more than an annoyance at the water cooler. It is a vivid demonstration of the price that our country pays every day for the comforting moral clarity of the “right to life,” a fragile construct that has always been partly about not letting pregnant women “escape responsibility” for their actions. If a mother’s life goes to hell because she can’t afford to raise a child, well, she should have thought of that when she let herself get knocked up. The child becomes a sort of righteous punishment, not a person—and, in similar fashion, those “outraged” by Suleman’s story clearly hope that she (and, inevitably, her children) will have a rough time of it. It is the worship of motherhood, and the hatred of mothers.


Comments

I’m pro-choice, but I’m not about to mock the pro-life movement. It _is_ life that we are talking about, and it is life that is either human or will be, depending upon definition. I am always annoyed when the pro-choice movement tries to occupy the higher moral ground.

As for the Suleman narrative, I avoided those stories the same way I avoid stories of sensational murders.

By on 02/03/09 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Suleman certainly strikes me as foolish, but why does her decision strike so many Americans as obscene?

1.A dark 2. quasi-single 3. Muslim 4. immigrant 5. woman 6. on welfare 7. using high-tech methods 8. did something weird and unheard of 9. almost entirely on her own initiative. And I’d guess that many or most of the babies have health issues.

I think that 10. (the depression) probably does have something to with it. This event does put right-to-lifers on the spot if they’re not also enthusiastic welfare-staters (i.e. Catholic Roosevelt Democrats).

By John Emerson on 02/03/09 at 06:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Learning Channel { TLC }President Eileen O’Neill said production companies that work with TLC have already made offers to Octuplet mom Nayda Suleman’s family, but the network is waiting to see how TV-friendly the family is.

HELL NO!!! Why would anyone want to watch and reward a woman whose irresponsible and sounds like a nut-case and did this on purpose?

Child care advice from HER.. are they kidding!!!

In my opinion Kate Gosselin did the same thing as she was hospitalized with hyper-stimulated overys..So that means NO INTERCOURSE for awhile or Fertility treatments, then low and behold 5 weeks later she goes in for an ultrasound as she knows she is pregnant and sees 7 embryos one which later was reabsorbed.

She and her hubby went against their doctor’s advice and had sex and that’s why they have 6 kids.

No wonder she exclaimed as she said on TV and in her book “What have WE done” when she saw 7 embryos on the ultra sound screen.

If people would stop rewarding people such as Suleman & the Gosselin’s etc, people would stop having litters of children to pimp out for profit.

I’d also hope people would boycott TLC if Nayda Suleman is given a show.

By on 02/03/09 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cool, Tina decided to give us an example of what Joseph was talking about.

Asking why the American public thinks this is obscene is easily answered.  It’s because the American public is deeply committed to the practice of evil, and wouldn’t adequately demonstrate it if they didn’t make a big show of thinking that a personal family event like this was something to get all worked up about while ignoring or even cheering on torture.

But Joseph, why do you think this is noteworthy?  Is your piece cultural criticism?

By on 02/03/09 at 09:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Joseph, why do you think this is noteworthy?  Is your piece cultural criticism?

Hopefully.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/03/09 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t see the big contradiction here.  A fairly normal set of conservatives values would be: (a) married couples should stay married and actually follow their vows; (b) couples that use artificial reproduction should do so in a way that respects religious values (i.e., be prepared to use all embryos); (c) children should be raised by two, married, heterosexual parents.

And banning abortion isn’t the same as punishing mothers.  Adoption is always an option.  I don’t think it’s asking too much to say: if you’re ready to have sex, you’re ready to bring a baby to term.

People are outraged by Suleman in part because, as Tina suggests, she clearly was prepared from the beginning to sell her motherhood and her children to the highest media buyer.  It’s *Jackass* for childbirth.  And it wasn’t funny when it was *Jackass*.

By on 02/04/09 at 01:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Under that line of thought, people must be mad about this because of self-disgust.  The only world in which someone could “sell her motherhood and her children to the highest media buyer” is a world in which there is media interest because there are large numbers of people willing to spend their time clucking over it.  Therefore, these people must be outraged that she is willing to sell herself to them, basically.  Like a habitual John getting really mad at prostitutes.  I suppose that fits with the perverse sadism that comprises the majority of American values at this point.

By on 02/04/09 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well said, Rich.  It’s worth pointing out that Nadya Suleman was so anxious to sell out to the media that she kept her name and any information about the births private.  That stuff was supplied by her family.

Also, does anyone remember there being this much outrage about the McCaughey septuplets?  No; they were given free diapers and other perks, and treated adoringly by the media.  The relevant differences seem to be that they’re white, as John suggests in his comment, and that the economy is bad, as Joseph writes here.

By tomemos on 02/04/09 at 11:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The relevant difference is that this woman is bringing these fourteen children into the world without a father.

By bjk on 02/05/09 at 03:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And banning abortion isn’t the same as punishing mothers.  Adoption is always an option.

1) carrying around a foetus for nine months isn’t easy, you know.
2) around 1 in 8000 mothers die in childbirth in the US - making giving birth about as risky as spending a month with the army in Baghdad.

By on 02/05/09 at 06:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tomemos, Suleman hired a PR agent and is controlling the flow of information so that the price is right.

Also, a quick wikipedia check would tell you that the McCaughey family received plenty of bad press and hate mail. 

Third, Suleman couldn’t handle the children she already had.

Rich, you’re committing a logical error called tu quoque.  And you’re ignoring the fact that many of the same cultural conservatives who oppose abortion also oppose mainstream media and its secularizing forces.

Ajay, then all women should be taught that one possible consequence of sex is death.  Just like one possible consequence of driving is death.  I was taught both in seventh grade health class, but I can see how a grad student like Suleman might not know about such things.

By on 02/05/09 at 10:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There are some passages here that I don’t understand. 

You write that the event of the octuplets was “carried forward by an ideological way of interpreting fertilization and pregnancy that has nothing to do with such concerns as the whereabouts of the father, or her ability to pay her children’s expenses.” I don’t understand this passage. Do you mean to suggest that a non-ideological way of “interpreting” pregnancy is to consider the whereabouts of the father or one’s financial position? I don’t think you can mean this.  But then I don’t understand what you mean.

Also, Kugelmass writes “It doesn’t help that the anti-abortion movement thinks about conception in a rigidly naturalistic way, and therefore has practically no framework for dealing with the categorical disruptions implied by these “artificial” births.” I don’t fully understand this passage either, especially the phrase “thinks about conception in a rigidly naturalistic way.” Do you mean that pro-lifers are generally opposed to in vitro fertilization and embryonic implantation, and favor conception by natural means?

In any case, it seems rather hysterical to go on to write about this issue as a “vivid demonstration of the price that our country pays every day for the comforting moral clarity of the “right to life,”.  In this country, after all, abortion is a constitutionally protected right.

Or do you mean only to say that pro-lifers who criticize Suleman for refusing to destroy her embryos are being moral hypocrites? If so, I agree, but then hypocrisy is fairly common.

By on 02/05/09 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another thing.

You write of the “right to life,” that it is “a fragile construct that has always been partly about not letting pregnant women “escape responsibility” for their actions.”

Do you have an argument that this “fragile construct” “has always been partly about” what you claim it has been about?

Suppose I were to give you one counterexample, say a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft or Susan Anthony or Alice Paul, in which it is shown that being opposed to abortion has not *always* *partly* been about what you claim. What are you then left with? That “pro-lifers” or “anti-choicers” or whatever are hypocritical in their condemnation of this woman?

By on 02/05/09 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No way this is tu quoque, Luther.  Look, this whole issue has nothing to do with any sort of generalized policy preference.  It simply has people saying how bad a person, Suleman, is for doing something.  That’s not an argument, it’s a proffered moral opinion.  It’s perfectly fine for me to respond to that by saying that in my moral opinion, the people going on about Suleman are detestable people.  Why should they get to opine freely about someone who isn’t really affecting them, and not me?

Nor is my criticism really cultural criticism.  It’s nonsensical that they could say that they are opposed to secularizing media while being worked up by it, but that’s fine—those people act nonsensically all the time.  No, my criticism is really religious.  These people are engaging in malicious, harmful gossip about someone who they are treating, due to modern media, as their neighbor.  They are sanctimonious and evil.

By on 02/05/09 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The McCaugheys didn’t have six children already, btw. I think you missed the complex of questions around the prospective health of the babies and the costs of providing them with the necessary medical care they are likely to need as related to the current concerns over allotment of health care/health ins in the U.S.

By on 02/08/09 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

this girls a gross slob, trying to get free hand outs from the taxpayers they should take the kids and deport her

By on 02/11/09 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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