Twelve babies were born 10 hours apart over the weekend in Minnesota and Arizona -- 12 babies, that is, to two mothers. Six each. "Brianna Morrison, 24, who used fertility drugs, gave birth just before midnight Sunday in Minneapolis," CNN reported yesterday afternoon. "About 10 hours later, Jenny Masche, 32, who used artificial insemination, gave birth Monday in Phoenix by Caesarean section, the first successful sextuplet delivery in Arizona." All of the babies were quite premature -- Morrison's just over 22 weeks! -- but so far seem to be relatively stable. Masche is recovering from acute heart failure caused by the extraordinary volume of blood required by her pregnancy.
Sextuplet births are quite rare (never mind two in a row) -- the chance of conceiving six "naturally" is one in nearly 5 billion -- but predictions are that the incidence of all high-order multiples (triplets and beyond) will only increase with the use of fertility treatments. Unless, that is, as Washington University pediatrics professor F. Sessions Cole suggested to CNN, doctors figure out how to reduce that risk. Large numbers of multiple (even twin) pregnancies are no joke or adorable circus act. Neither the uterus nor the average family income/wherewithal was designed for more than one baby at once. For this reason, physicians often advise "selective reduction" as a means of increasing the odds for the remaining proto-siblings and protecting the health of the mother. But even with so much at stake, that's hardly an easy route to take, especially for a couple who have had trouble conceiving in the first place. (According to reports, the Morrisons expressly rejected that option.)
It's a common misconception that in vitro fertilization is primarily responsible for the increase in births of multiples. But to the degree that doctors can control the fertility process at all, IVF is a procedure they can more or less control. You don't get sextuplets unless you implant at least six embryos (very unlikely to begin with), and probably not even then. Two, and possibly twins, are more the order of the day. Rather than IVF, it's fertility drugs that are, for lack of a more nursery-friendly metaphor, the shotgun approach. Clomid, for one, makes you an ovulation machine; there's no way to tell how many eggs you'll create, or may be fertilized, in any given cycle. And Clomid, pharmaceutically speaking (and to continue the inappropriate metaphor), is not even the big guns. This is one reason that writer Liza Mundy has suggested that making IVF more financially accessible (drugs are usually much cheaper) might be a way of reducing the incidence of high-order multiples. (Of course, multiples are not a given; plenty of people who use fertility drugs do have singletons -- like me.)
CNN actually fudges the details of Masche's fertility treatment. "Artificial insemination" (now more commonly called "intrauterine insemination," or IUI) alone, my friends, is just a way of shortening the distance between two (moving) points. It does not increase one's chances of multiples unless there are drugs involved. But whatever. The particulars of Masche's treatment are her business. Insofar as high-order multiples may increasingly become a public health issue, however, the matter of fine-tuning fertility treatment is everyone else's.