ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: It was hard not to smile, to give thanks. By some miracle, as everyone called it, seven premature but pretty healthy babies were born to one woman. If it was a miracle, it was one abetted by modern science, precisely what is going on more and more as fertility wizards find new ways to make babies, methods which challenge the very definition of family and parenthood. In truth, the begetting of the septuplets was neither that medically nor morally tricky in that the sperm and eggs used belong to the parents.
And the medicine was pretty basic stuff. The mother just took an injection of fertility drugs, which caused her ovaries to produce multiple eggs. And she's young--only 29. In short, there's nothing very fancy going on here, nothing even close to some of the other stuff we've been reading about lately--post menopausal babies, for example. The first such mother that we knew about was that 62-year-old Italian woman. And when she gave birth in 1994, what could we do but congratulate her and ask ourselves questions at the same time: Is this okay? How long will she be around? What does it mean to be a mother? More and more older women are having babies, some 100 women 50 and over in this country alone. And our airwaves and editorial pages are thick with the controversy. It's completely selfish, some say. Nonsense, say others, look at the aging dad--Tony Randall and Clint Eastwood, to name just two.
Equal rights to parenthood is the issue. No, love is the issue. The dilemmas don't end. Are we mid-life women entitled to procreate whenever we want simply because science makes it possible? Are we entitled to buy the eggs of younger women, or for that matter, the unused orphan embryos of some couple who went through infertility and left some unused frozen embryos behind? And what then do we tell our offspring, that they have biological parents somewhere, thus setting off in their souls the confusion and longing some adoptees have manifested, or do we just keep it a secret, always wondering if somehow the truth will spill out?
For me, and many women like me, these questions are not academic. I too went through a long and ultimately unsuccessful baby quest, stopping just short of using donor thises or that because the questions for me were simply too intense. I figured menopause was the end. But now doctors tell me I can get back in the baby chase; that it's never too late to give birth, a thought that feels both weird and hopeful and right and wrong all at the same time. Fertility clinics are now full of women like me, and every year there are more of us. In just seven years--from 1998 to 1995--the number of American women in their child bearing years who suffered from infertility went from 4.9 to 6.1 million, a 25 percent jump, in no small part because many women are waiting longer to have their children. So more money and more effort will be thrown at the problem. The latest breakthrough is the freezing of eggs on their own so that the young and unready full of dreams and career goals can simply have a batch of their young healthy eggs frozen in their early 20's and stored for future use. How weird it all seems.
In truth, even the septuptlet birth is a little scary. In no previous birth of seven have all the babies lived to beyond a few days or weeks. By insisting on trying to carry seven babies to term, this couple was defying the odds, as really are any of us who go down this road. All you can do is square off with your own moral limits, make your own decisions, however lonesome or painful or joyful they turn out to be. I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.