American parenting idol?

Octuplet mother Nadya Suleman has hired a publicist and is fielding book and TV deals. But what does her story mean for the future of women's health?

Published February 3, 2009 8:29PM (EST)

Is anyone out there surprised to hear that Nadya Suleman, the 33-year-old single mother who gave birth to octuplets last week and may be "obsessed with children," is already selling herself as the next big parenting star? As CNN reports, the mother of 14 has already hired a publicist, who claims to be fielding inquiries about book deals and TV shows and is calling her client "the most sought-after mom in the world right now." Suleman also, apparently, hopes to earn millions of dollars in product endorsements and paid interviews.

A few of the experts CNN interviews are dubious that Suleman will achieve Duggar-level fame. The CEO of a P.R. company calls her ambitions "delusional," while a psychologist hides his judgment under some seriously euphemistic language: Suleman, he says, is "a woman who has a very unique way of thinking that may not be rooted in reality."

Meanwhile, feminists are asking serious questions about what Suleman and her octuplets mean for the future of women's health. Over at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte points out that the story may have more to do with mental illness than with an exaggerated version of women's supposed instinct to breed. She cautions readers against "assuming that this case has anything to do with the experiences of most women," writing,

Even in the unlikely case that this woman doesn’t have mental health problems, her case is not especially good evidence that the law or doctors have a right to start pushing women around and making our reproductive decisions for us.  The far more common cases are those when control is yanked away from the woman in question because her judgment is sound, but the control freak doctor or politician is on a sexist or racist high horse.

Marcotte's argument sparked my curiosity as to what pregnant women's rights activists would have to say about the case, so I e-mailed Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, for her thoughts. "What I  would check if I had the time is the extent to which coverage of this story -- whether negative or positive -- is framed as a question of ethics," she replied. "When the pregnant woman is not brown or black and the drugs/technologies are provided by big pharma, the discussion focuses on questions of ethics. But if the issue is childbearing by low-income women of color, and the drug is homegrown/ illegal then the debate is a question of punishment through the criminal justice or civil child welfare system." Paltrow also cited a study showing that, while we often talk about the effects illegal drugs can have on pregnancy, "women who take fertility drugs and choose to carry three or more embryos to term often experience pregnancy loss and risk severe, lifelong harm to the children who survive."

Paltrow's points highlight just how little we know about Suleman. Her ethnicity hasn't become an issue yet, because no one has mentioned her race or published pictures of her. And though Suleman does not work and has been supported by parents whom she may have bankrupted, she doesn't seem to be in the welfare system. The drugs mentioned in connection with her pregnancy are prescription fertility treatments, not illegal substances. And what do you know? As the L.A. Times reports, "The California Medical Board, which investigates doctors, and the California Department of Public Health, which licenses clinics and hospitals, said no doctors or facilities are currently being investigated regarding the births. It is also unlikely that the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services would get involved unless it receives a complaint of child abuse or neglect." Instead, as Paltrow predicts, coverage of Suleman's octuplets has focused on the medical ethics of artificially inseminating a single woman who's already struggling to raise six children.

Since Suleman seems bent on remaining in the public eye, I have no doubt we'll see photos of her, sooner or later. And I can't help wondering: If she isn't white, will it change the conversation we're having about her?

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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