In late winter 2009, the airwaves came alive with stories about Nadya Suleman, the California mother who gave birth to octuplets conceived via assisted reproductive technology. Nadya Suleman and her octuplets are the vehicles through which Americans express their anxiety about race, class and gender. Expressions of concern for the health of children, the mother’s well-being, the future of reproductive medicine or the financial drain on taxpayers barely conceal deep impulses towards racism, sexism and classism. It is true that the public has had a longstanding fascination with multiple births and with large families. This is evidenced by a long history of media attention and film depictions of such families, both fictitious and real. However, there is a point at which fascination turns to disdain, and that occurs all too often when the time that parents of the children are revealed to be Other — outside of racial and class norms. This essay describes eight socio-legal anxieties that coalesce in response to Suleman's story: (1) race and racial hierarchies; (2) the contingency of white privilege; (3) the nature of white motherhood; (4) the role of doctors as agents of the state; (5) reproductive technology and class; (6) bodily perfection and class markers; (7) the bounds of the traditional family; and (8) geographical differences.
The bounds of tolerance strain and break when individual autonomy collides with majoritarian notions of civic and moral virtue. Derision of Suleman reveals the limitations of tolerance for women who deviate from prescribed norms, including norms of “choice.” Suleman’s story is not just about multiple births, then, but about society’s multiple anxieties when a woman breaches the bounds of racial, class and gender expectations.
Bridget J. Crawford & Lolita Buckner Innis, Social Factoring the Numbers with Assisted Reproduction, 19 Tex. J. Women & L. 1 (2009)
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