It's a miracle. In Des Moines, Iowa, Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey gave birth to septuplets: four boys and three girls. The proud parents became instant celebrities, lauded by newspapers and TV news shows alike. Proctor & Gamble offered all the Pampers the McCaugheys could soil and a local dealership offered a free minivan. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad gave the family a house and even declared the kids' birthday McCaughey Children's Day. By every measure, the birth of this sevenfold brood to these proud parents was treated as a triumph and an inspiration.
In reality, it's appalling.
There's no denying that the birth of a child is a natural, wondrous thing. However, the birth of septuplets conceived by fertility drugs at the hands of an otherwise-infertile couple is another matter entirely. In fact, in the face of the global population explosion, it borders on the spooky. Throw in the frequent invocations by the McCaughey clan that the birth was God's will, rather the will of a lab technician at Glaxco-Wellcome, and we're into the realm of the eerily cultish.
Wasn't it God's will to make this couple infertile in the first place? Being religious people, what inspired these two to subvert God's will with secular fertility drugs (Pergonal in this case) and crank out no fewer than seven where God had earlier decreed there shall be none? Did it not even occur to the McCaugheys that infertility is sometimes God's way of telling you to adopt?
These are questions that would no sooner be posed by the national news media than "Is the Earth really round?" Given the breathless acclaim heaped on the McCaugheys, you'd think we were in the throes of a global population shortage. In fact the opposite is true: The planet is current groaning under the weight of six billion -- count 'em: six billion -- people, all of whom demand some measure of food, clothing, shelter and energy, all of whom produce waste, and many of whom, incidentally, are children in desperate need of an adoptive home.
Pampers' offer is expected to amount to over 31,500 diapers by the time the kids are toilet trained. Not surprisingly, no one has stepped forward to volunteer responsibility for their disposal. Here's an idea: Dump them all in a landfill behind the McCaugheys' home. You think overpopulation is a third-world issue? Consider that the average American's energy use is twice that of a Japanese person, 32 times that of a resident of India, and 372 times greater than an Ethiopian. Thus, the impact these septuplets will have on the planet is equivalent to 2,604 Ethiopians -- try fitting that kind of crowd into a Des Moines Burger King.
Thus it's strange and disturbing that childbirth en masse has taken on such an absolute and cultish appeal. The explosion of fertility drugs to serve the burgeoning market of prospective parents demanding an inalienable right to breed has led to a striking increase in multiple births. Since 1973, twins and triplet births have risen over 65% and "quads and above" births have risen at least 221%, all despite the fact that anything beyond twins is extremely dangerous for both mom and children.
However, thanks to the overwhelming publicity, one good brood is bound to beget another -- look for an ambitious couple from Omaha to shoot for octuplets (it helps if you chew the Pergonal constantly, like candy) in hopes of getting on the "Oprah" show. Watch for society to give older unwanted orphans a sense of place by allowing them to assist in the delivery of more genetically aligned children. Expect pie-eating contests at the local fair to be combined with Breed-a-Thons sponsored by the office of the Governor. The winner -- a 63-year old whose "Pergonal Peach Pie" both features a light, flaky crust and gives her grandchildren three new aunts to play with.
Rising infertility rates are one of Mother Nature's (or the Lord our Father's) more subtle ways of curbing the impact of humans' ongoing breeding festival. If enough couples take the McCougheys' lead and react by defiantly ejecting children by the half-dozen, the planet will likely resort to other mechanisms to deal with overpopulation. Recent run-ins with Earth's capacity have involved AIDS, ebola, starvation and skin cancer, all of which are far more painful than the angst of not being able to continue your genetic line.
Add to this scenario the millions of children in need of an adoptive home, and infertile couples who want children are presented with a clear choice. They can help solve both problems by choosing to adopt. Or they can use fertility drugs to crank out entire litters of genetically-aligned spawn. If you do the former, you toil in obscurity. If you do the latter, you're a hero. If only the opposite were true.
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Originally published in the Boulder Weekly, November 26, 1997.