Pick off the litter

Anne Geddes is a photographer who takes treacly pictures of babies dressed as flowers and vegetables, and her photos enjoy phenomenal success. And why not? Everyone loves babies. They produce smiles as instantly as music or a smartly placed vibrating pager. They're adorable and innocent and don't fight back or become sullen when you dress them as cabbage and think it's funny.

But just a couple of hundred years ago, babies weren't much different from produce. People had lots of them because then if a few died on the vine you still had some left over. Babies often died in frigid winters and little was invested in them emotionally. This prompted physicist Freeman Dyson to credit knitting as one of the most important inventions of civilization: Warm, snuggly clothing ensured children's survival, allowing us to get used to loving the helpless bundles, which we've done ever since. So it isn't the card rack at Waccamaw that Geddes has to thank for her success. It's sheep.

More science brought more progress, and children stopped being conceived simply to work the farm. Now, theoretically, we have children because we want to, instead of just breeding willy-nilly and hoping a few hang on. We've come a long way, right?

For the most part, yes. But like mapless drivers who hit the road figuring they'll just wing it, some people have come a long way only to end up back at the beginning, having kids willy-nilly and hoping they hang on. And it's science, too, that's brought us back to that starting gate -- the science of fertility drugs.

By the numbers

This noodling around with the human body makes plastic surgery look like a game of Mr. Potato Head. Fertility drugs enabled Bobbi McCaughey to deliver live septuplets in 1997. The media framed the event as a warm, fuzzy miracle but it was mostly a freak show, with Diane Sawyer as the sedate, sophisticated carnival barker and Bobbi McCaughey as the human clown car -- the people just kept coming out and coming out and you wondered when it would quit and how'd they all fit in there anyway?

Nkem Chukwu saw Bobbi's seven and raised her one, delivering the only known surviving octuplets on Dec. 21. Some see it as a miracle. Some question the science that can't tell you whether you're going to conceive a baby or a volleyball team. Some of us want to know when women are going to start having all their kids out at once like wisdom teeth, or when they're going to start packing them in dozens like at Krispy Kreme. And if you have a litter, does every kid in the neighborhood get to take one home?

Fertility drugs aren't necessarily wrong, but they are weird and dicey, and their consumption is pretty remarkable when you consider their hit-or-miss nature. Dr. Mark I. Evans of Wayne State University said, "If you don't give enough medicine you wind up with nothing ... and if you sneeze twice you wind up with six [babies]." I've taken polls with less margin of error than that. For godssake, if you ordered one pizza and six showed up at your door, you'd say, "Get outta here."

But women who want babies have a drive that makes crack addicts look shy. Most "high-order multiples" (births of triplets or more, which have increased five times in the 20-plus years since fertility drugs came about) are risky. One of Chukwu's babies died; the rest were born with brains so soft they're "almost akin to Jell-O," said the chief of the neonatal unit at the hospital where they were born. The drugs that produced them cost $2,000 a cycle, and the octuplets have garnered $2 million in medical bills in less than a month. It may seem cynical to put a price on life, but ask anyone without health insurance: It happens every day.

Mine field

You'd think adoption might be a cheerier avenue down which to unleash your excess of love. But it's an option fertility drugs seem to have left behind in a cloud of "mine."

Both McCaughey and Chukwu had the option of "selective reduction," aborting the less viable embryos so the rest would have a better chance. Both refused. Of abortion Chukwu said, "I've never seen such a word in my Bible." But "fertility drugs," one guesses, appears on every other page, perhaps in the Book of Excess. It's so interesting that people are so willing to do what God wants, unless what God seems to want is for them not to have children. Suddenly they're pretty willing to shove God in the direction of their desires.

Fertility drugs are one of the only deals out there where you can buy one, get seven free. And at least it's certain that all the kids they produce are wanted. But you have to be very careful of what you want, because you might get it, not just in triplicate but in octuplicate. Sometimes your eyes are bigger than your stomach.


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