The Fertility Show

The premise of the 2006 movie “Children of Men,” directed by Alfonso Cuaron, was that an unexplained phenomenon had rendered the entire human population sterile and the world had turned childless. For many years, no one is able to conceive, so when people find out that a young woman is pregnant, she is hunted for her precious cargo, but also revered for her fertility. The current television obsession with multiple pregnancies and large families would probably make a good plotline for a sequel to “Children of Men,” where the story becomes our return to almost the same fertility worship practiced by our prehistoric ancestors.

About 70,000 years ago, the Toba volcano in Indonesia erupted. Many researchers argue that the catastrophic explosion and its aftermath brought our species to the brink of extinction. This fertility “craze” in our ancestors would have been understandable then, as a few thousand individuals struggled to survive and increase their numbers. It’s safe to say, though, now that our species is fast approaching the 7 billion mark, that we have successfully averted the danger of becoming extinct. So, why are we again so invested in stories of families that grow exponentially?

This trend has already spawned reality shows such as “John and Kate Plus 8,” now renamed (for reasons that were plastered all over the tabloids) “Kate Plus 8”; “Raising Sextuplets”; and the just plain scary “19 Kids and Counting,” among others. In these shows, the “miracle of life” is taken to the same extremes as all of those activities that have become endemic to American culture, and that of late seem to carry the prefix “over”: overeating, overspending, overcompensating. Why have one or two children, when you can have six, seven or eight and be in “Dancing with the Stars”?

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Multiple births were seen as a biological rarity until recently. News of quadruplets, quintuplets or sextuplets seemed wondrous and made for quirky headlines. With the aid of fertility treatments, however, these occurrences have become more commonplace.

While, in most countries in the European Union, there is a legal limit on the number of embryos that can be placed at once in a woman’s womb, there is no such limit in the US. Some US fertility clinics place up to ten embryos in a woman’s womb at once – the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s recommendation against the practice the only potential official deterrent – thus making scenarios like that of the Octomom possible. Her comic-book villain nickname seems to sum up our feelings of not only slight revulsion, but also of morbid engagement.

For some people struggling to have children, the arguably unethical practice of placing several embryos in a womb at once represents a higher chance of conceiving without having to go through several expensive rounds of fertilization treatment. However, despite all the advances in prenatal and neonatal care, multiple pregnancies are still risky, as they often lead to premature labor. According to the American Pregnancy Association, a premature baby is susceptible to a myriad of health problems such as hypoglycemia, respiratory distress syndrome and neonatal jaundice. The Mayo Clinic also adds to that list bleeding of the brain (intracranial hemorrhage), as well as vision and intestinal problems. Preemies usually experience long-term developmental problems too, including a higher incidence of motor impairment and attention deficit disorder (ADD), just to name a few. For some parents, however, these stakes seem like a small price to pay to be able to carve themselves a niche in reality television, a genre that, at its worst, likes to reward unrestrained, over-the-top self-indulgence.

There is an escapism of sorts in this self-indulgence, this throwing care to the wind. The superabundance that permeates every aspect of American culture, from serving sizes in restaurants to the size of our televisions, is our new American Dream, where you don’t have to be rich to have too much of everything, including children. That’s why, as I watch the matriarch of the Duggar clan push her nineteenth child into this world, and then watch the baby struggle in the neonatal intensive care unit, I realize how much some of us are willing to sacrifice for that piece of American Dream. “This should really be her last baby,” I say to myself – but then, the show wouldn’t be called “19 Kids and Counting,” and, as they say, the show must go on.