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February 26, 2009

Quiverfulls and the OctoMom

My friend Kathryn Joyce has a new book out about the Quiverfull movement.The book grew out of a Nation article on the Quiverfulls, a conservative Christian movement dedicated to "building God's army" by having as many children as possible. My review copy in the mail and I can't wait to read it.

Nadya Suleman has recently become a household name after giving birth to octuplets as a single mother of seven. Suleman has been singled out for some pretty vicious criticism. Even her publicists got death threats. Consumers threatened to boycott companies that offered her free stuff.

I expected a lot of vitriol from conservatives. Predictably, they seized on Suleman as the epitome of a "welfare queen," an unemployed woman who sought infertility treatment to have a huge family she was manifestly unable to support.

It's hard to imagine anyone more demonstrably committed to pro-life ideology than Suleman, who told an interviewer that she insisted on having her doctor implant 6 embryos at once because considered them to be little people who deserved a chance at life outside the clinic freezer.

You could characterize Suleman's motives in two ways: i) She was the selfish baby-hoarding equivalent of a crazy cat lady; ii) she was so convinced of the intrinsic worth of children and motherhood that reproduction trumped all other concerns. Both are accurate. No doubt Suleman was surprised and disappointed when she was disqualified for the mantle of pro-life martyr for being unmarried and biracial.

I didn't expect such a strong feminist backlash. Katha Pollitt described Suleman as "the woman we love to hate." Liberal criticism of Suleman has usually been couched in terms of the well-being of her children, or the well-being of the planet.

Unless she's mentally ill, Suleman was wrong to seek IVF when she knew she couldn't provide for the children she already had. She should have known that she was diminishing the chances that her existing children would have a decent life.

But the highly personal eco-criticism rings false. In the grand scheme of things, the resources consumed by 14 extra poor kids in California is (sadly) negligible compared to other conspicuous consumption that is accepted as normal. We may look askance executives who earn and spend thousands of times as much as the average worker, but they don't usually get accosted by angry mobs at gas stations like Suleman was.

I doubt many self-identified feminists are issuing threats or joining mobs, but the nastiness is striking. Check out the comments on this post on Echidne of the Snakes, a well-known feminist blog. (I hasten to add that the post itself isn't nasty at all, but some of the comments are really ugly.)

It's easy for liberals to hate on Suleman and the Quiverfulls. They ostentatiously reject our values and our conception of the good life by defining their entire lives in terms of unchecked reproduction. They're trying to provoke us.

Ultimately it's counterproductive for feminists to single out individual reproductive choices for criticism after the fact. First off, it reinforces the general assumption that women's reproductive choices should be under constant scrutiny by strangers.

Second, moralizing about having too many kids isn't going to change anybody's mind. If we think people's otherwise legal behavior needs to change, we should be advocating for policies and social structures that make it easy and pleasant for people to choose to do what we think they ought to do.

If you want people to recycle, you don't browbeat non-recyclers for failing to sort their trash, you design new trash bins that make sorting easy and distribute them for free.

If you want people to have smaller families, you don't shame people who have lots of kids. You provide birth control for everyone who wants it, keep women in control of their own sexuality and reproduction, and expand opportunities so that most women have something they'd rather be doing than raising a huge brood of children.

The Quiverfulls and Nadya Sulemans of the world aren't going to stop because we disapprove. In fact, every time we criticize them, we reinforce the idea that having lots of kids is a big "Fuck You" to all those moralizing feminists and secular liberals.

My great grandmother had eight children but it wasn't a statement, it was just a biological and social reality of living on a farm in Alberta in the 1920s. She probably disapproved of those libertine Flappers in Toronto, but having eight kids wasn't a reproach to them.

I don't think Quiverfull would have made any sense to my great grandmother as a social movement. Of course you had as many children as God saw fit. Sure, there were folk remedies and probably even abortions, but they weren't all that reliable, either. Basically, your choice as a woman was wife or spinster. After that, fertility was like the weather, everyone dealt with it as it came.

Nowadays, thanks to science and feminism, choice has become implicit in understanding of reproduction. The default assumption is that families of nine don't just happen, even if you don't do anything to stop it, you really should have. Practically speaking, a woman on public assistance in the Mississippi Delta today may not have a lot more control over her fertility than my great grandmother did. But if she has a lot of kids, conservatives will judge her as if she made a fully autonomous choice.

Nadya Suleman had a lot of choices, which is why we feel okay judging her so harshly. I'm not a moral relativist. Of course we can fairly criticize her for shirking her responsibilities to her seven older children.

However, I'd like to see a day when reproduction ceases to be a public moral battleground. In an ideal world having too many children would be in the same category as making a disastrously irresponsible business decision. Sure, people who make reckless or selfish business decisions get judged and rightly so. If only a small number of people are directly affected, society at large is not going to get too excercised about some dime store in Iowa that goes out of business because of the owner was too disorganized to pay his suppliers. Some people may well end up on welfare as a result of his irresponsible decisions, but it's not considered a national moral emergency like those octuplets.

Small-scale bad business practices are accepted as bad, even wrong, but not as abominations that Must Never Be Allowed to Happen. Why can't we have the same equanimity about people who make unwise reproductive choices?


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I've seen a lot of blog/news commenters e-screaming about Nadya Suleman's lack of personal responsibility, and getting upset when some of us (like myself) blame her doctor quite heavily for the mess. I think some of the hard-core free-market folks see medical practice as a marketplace where the consumer pays her money and takes her chances, and the physician is just giving the customer what she wants. The concepts of professional judgment and medical ethics just escape some people. (I wonder how many people know that it's considered poor medical practice to implant six embryos in an IVF patient, whether or not she has the money to pay for it or the emotional stability to understand the consequences.)

I agree, Julie. The mainstream media have done a terrible job disseminating the facts about best practices for IVF.

When I was nine, the youngest of six children, a sister who lived with us (with her husband) gave birth to her first child. Then, in the next seven years she produced seven more children. Some of them were not quite a year apart.

This affected my quality of life because my mother was their chief caregiver, and within a few years my father was supporting them. Only many years later did I feel free to ask her why she had conceived them. "I didn't have a choice," she said. I didn't argue with her, but when I married only three years after her last baby came, I started out with a diaphragm and spermicide. She had to have known that they existed and she could have used one. This was before the first birth control pill.

I suspected even then that my mother---who loved babies and couldn't cope with having her children leave home---subtly encouraged her.

When my mother and father died soon after the last was born, my sister had developed no skills in parenting, and her husband could not or would not work.

Before the deaths, I don't think anyone criticized my sister for the births (and certainly no one criticized her husband.) Before long, however, many were critical of how they lived, and no doubt, of their being on welfare.

An uncle and aunt, during this time and afterwards had twelve or thirteen children, but they were mature, hard-working, and a supply of endless love. The mother, who had started married life with pristine housekeeping, had to loosen up on that.

I have no point to make here, except that I was deprived of certain things by the presence of so many babies and small children in our household, but I think that my cousins were not deprived of anything important by being part of such a large brood.

I cannot vilify or condemn Ms. Suleman, but she has been foolish and unrealistic. She didn't expect to have eight babies---it had not happened with the other transfers---and once she realized they were coming, she must have expected that she would receive the kinds of help showered on previous multiple births. I feel sad about what has happened instead. Since her giving birth I believe that she has been waiting to be rescued. I hope that she yet will be, in a way that puts restrictions on her, to avoid other unwise decisions, without impinging upon her civil liberties.

'Quiverfuls' a pejorative term but better than 'litter' seems to be regarded as a bad choice in a modern era where women, if they have the means, should know better, as your article seems to suggest. Again this reduces children to objects where if you can afford them you have them, if you can't, you don't. It is a consumer mindset. Not a feminist one. Feminism is pro choice, one's own, to have or have not. Not what other women as individuals or groups sanction or wider society dictates. Your idea that fertility should be socially engineered by policy and social sturctures is to suggest that a woman's control over her own body in producing life is to be softly policed so that she is not even aware it is happening.

There is nothing wrong with a woman having many children if that is her choice, indeed that potential is part of a most natural, fruitful identity of being a woman. To be told not to reproduce is offensive and a destructive turn in the celebration of women and feminism.

The objections to this in part arise from a materialist society which values cost of living over living. Children are not commodities like pets or shoes or mortgaged properties to be afforded, they are a woman's lifeblood to be brought into this world to live their own lives for life's sake irrespective of any woman's financial or other ability to look after them. That is what society is for, to help look after each other and how non western societies often function. Are women squatting in dirt tracks with scores of children more or less feminist and liberated than a mother villified and made to feel like a mental case for doing the same over the ocean in the West? Who is truly more liberated: a woman who can choose to go out to work all hours or a woman who can choose to procreate nonstop. Americanised Feminism now equates with women's value in the labour market as if being a careerist is the ultimate liberation. That may be partly true but it has so swung the other way that the baby has literally been thrown out with the bathwater. Nadya refused to and for that, this ultimate act of motherhood, refusing to dispose of her children as embryos because she could not choose between the risk to their lives versus hers, she is condemned. Nor could she give them up for adoption because she is their Mother, a word devoid of meaning these days, if one can atack a woman for it such as blaming everything post freudian on Mother. She may even in her won unique way be considered a different kind of feminist, the old fashioned kind in choosing another kind of women's labour: producing children.

Well Jasmine, I don't think people who advocate responsible use of birth control are doing it from a point of view of children being something you can or can't afford. They're doing it from the point of view of trying to give children the best chance to succeed in life.

In Western democracies, life is no longer the way it was 100 years ago. Back then you could succeed reasonably well and support a family with just basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills at a grade school level. Nowadays, jobs for people with that skill level are few and far between, with most of them done away through automation. The ones that are left are in sweatshops/migrant labour/service industries that are on the very low end of the pay range.

These days, you'll have a pretty tough time getting by and raising a family without a high school diploma or GED. In addition, a child in a family of two will have an easier time getting parental attention and involvement in their education than a child in a family of eight or fourteen. Being a mother and raising kids is a wonderful thing. But doing it without thought as to what is best for those children, that's in many ways far more selfish than wondering about the "affordability" of another child, if the concern behind that affordability isn't one's own enjoyment options but the child's future opportunity.

Sure the kids in poorer Third World large families may actually be more happy than kids in smaller Western families because the former have each other to play with, and would be less exposed to advertising that conditions them with expectations of material things (toys!) to be happy. But when they start having to earn a living life gets much harder. What you're suggesting happens a lot in the Third World countries of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. So far it doesn't seem to be working out for them too well from an economic or Malthusian standpoint. There's political and other contributing factors for the economic problems, but much fewer excuses for the other.

Unless she's mentally ill, Suleman was wrong to seek IVF when she knew she could provide for the children she already had

NB: I think you mean "when she knew she couldn't provide. . .

If we think people's behavior needs to change, we should be advocating for policies and social structures that make it easy and pleasant for people to choose to do what we think they ought to do.

If you want people to recycle, you don't browbeat non-recyclers for failing to sort their trash, you design new trash bins that make sorting easy and distribute them for free.

I think you are painting with too broad a brush here. I'd say that if we think people's behavior needs to change, sometimes sanctions and penalties are appropriate, sometimes policies and social structures that make the changes easy and pleasant are appropriate, and quite often there's reason to employ both methods.

"Quiverfull" isn't a pejorative term. It's a self-identification for some people. I haven't read the book yet, so I don't know what percentage of radical Christian pro-natalists embrace the label, "Quiverfull," but it's not a slur.

The thing that bothers me about the attention paid to Suleman is that she's such an extreme, exceptional case. It seems like a bad idea for the debate about reproductive rights and practices to focus on events that rarely happen and things that people rarely do. Extreme cases can clarify our feelings about moral questions but there's something wrong when they're the bulk of what gets talked about. It's a lot like debating government-sanctioned torture in terms of movie-thriller ticking-bomb scenarios, or abortion in terms of the woman who casually uses an eight-month abortion in lieu of contraceptives. From what gets said and written, you'd think these situations were common rather than rare to the point of nonexistence.

It's a lot like debating government-sanctioned torture in terms of movie-thriller ticking-bomb scenarios, or abortion in terms of the woman who casually uses an eight-month abortion in lieu of contraceptives.

That's a very good analogy. Suleman was literally the first woman in history to give birth to a live set of octuplets. It's not a major social problem.


Once again, Bravos and Applause on your position and analysis.


I don't understand how sanctions and penalties are ever appropriate in this case of extraordinary multiple births. What would you inflict upon Ms. Suleman that would not, eventually, be inflicted upon 8 babies? Eight infants are being deprived of corporate donations of products for their care, nourishment, and health. How? Nasty, self-righteous, and hurtful people waged effective campaigns against the generosity of prospective donors. Why? Because they believe the mother doesn't deserve to be helped by anyone, least of which by those who offer generous free gifts. Babies are being punished because some people believe the mother's 'sins' SHOULD be visited upon her children. The tortured logic goes even further by complaints that taxpayers will have to foot the bills. So kill the mother, kill the generous donors, and leave the babies on the side of the road to die.

In my personal opinion, Ms. Suleman has a mental disorder called Borderline Personality Disorder, BPD. Until recently, it has been almost impossible to treat. There is some research that suggests that cognitive therapy plus psychopharmacology has the best promise for treatment. The research also shows there are no quick fixes. Ms. Suleman's mother needs an enormous amount of support and tangible assistance. Here are two resources on BPD:

1. Wikipedia - very readable:

2. PsychiatricTimes - more technical:

First time reading, thoughtful writer, but you and many commenters are missing much about the lack of ethics Octomom exhibited. Sorry, I don't have any respect for her so I'm not going to fake it.

First, while Americans are indeed a generous society, we support those with children they can't afford whether those children came from unplanned pregnancies (heat of passion, condom broke, pill missed, whatever, or from "I could have afforded them before... the divorce, the death, the illness,) and we don't ask why, we just give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn't include money from my paycheck as planned income. Octomom did.

So, society has a right to sanction her. She wants a village to raise her children, the village gets a voice. IN earlier societies that voice came in the norms and customs that accompanied reproduction - marriages, mating ages, ways of child rearing, etc. It has seemed in our capitalist society that nature was an impediment to littering, then came IVF, but IVF was expensive, and that seemed to be a sufficient barrier to abuse so we ignored it because surely a caring mom who went through IVF would not abuse it because it hurts the children (not insensate embryos)but actual living children who suffer when born premature, and higher order multiples = premature. But Octomom circumvented both those barriers (the second proves her unfitness as a parent).

Many suspect that in addition to her other afflictions, detachment from reality, inability to care about others, etc, she also has a most unhealthy fixation with Angelina Jolie - or perhaps it is with Jolie's husband? As a society, we are responsible for ensuring that other children aren't visited with the health problems that Octomom has inflicted on her children, so we need to ensure that her irresponsible actions are not rewarded, and her bad choices set up as a precedent for other psychopaths or impressionable girls to follow - if she gets an easy time of it, Nonomom and Decamom would be soon to follow. Hence the boycott of those who would be complicit in this travesty. Hopefully, she will be given the psychiatric treatment she needs to get back in touch with reality and her children cared for by others until that time or adopted if that time does not come.

Phylosopher, are you saying that Nadya Suleman had a moral duty to get selective abortions?

Remember, she didn't get pregnant with octuplets on purpose. Her doctor agreed to implant all 6 remaining embryos in one IVF cycle. He had inserted 6 embryos during her previous round of IVF and she didn't have a massive multiple pregnancy.

Now, you can argue that a woman who has 6 kids and wants a 7th while she's single and unemployed is making a presumptively irresponsible choice. But it's hardly the kind of behavior that would earn her national infamy and death threats.

Social shaming isn't going to stop massive multiple births. Realistically, our society isn't going to shame married women who have multiples. The number of infertile single women who can afford IVF and would be willing and physically able to carry a massive multiple pregnancy to term is practically nil. The only reason Suleman was able to afford IVF in the first place was because she had a significant windfall from her disability payment and parents who were supporting her. So, the deterrent value of shaming Suleman is minimal. There just aren't that many people out there who ever are going to be in a position to make the decision she did, regardless of whether we shame her or deprive her of resources.



I respectfully disagree with much of what you wrote. The fact that you don't have any respect for Nadya Suleman is your own business and not a relevant issue in this matter. Thanks for being forthright. I am not going to convince you otherwise, nor would it be germane to the discussion.

First, "[T]he lack of ethics...", exhibited by Ms. Suleman is not an applicable concept for discussing this woman who may be exhibiting symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. She is exhibiting a thought process that is not in tune with abstract notions of responsibility to herself, family, her community, the state, etc. She may be guided more by a fear of separation and abandonment that you and the informed public couldn't possibly fathom. It is my personal opinion that she is seriously mentally ill. However, she is not hearing voices and believing she is the reincarnation of Angelina Jolie. In other words, she is not schizophrenic. She is firmly grounded on this earth in time and place. She may have fantasies and delusions and unrealistic objectives. To say she is unethical does not get anyone closer to what her real problem is, or how to help her and her family and her children.

Second, I agree that there are ethical issues to be discussed by us, the medical profession, religious leaders, law makers, and so on. What does it mean that Ms. Sulemon was unethical in making whatever decisions she made? Was there a set of principles that were known and, more or less, agreed to by all parties involved? Was she unethical by refusing to abort, selectively, a number of her babies? If yes, then would the doctor (insurance company, the courts, influential citizens) be unethical by not forcing selective abortions? On what ethical basis would the determination of the number and sex of the selections be made if Ms. Suleman does not cooperate?

Third, we have to get away from the whining over the pennies from individual paychecks that may or may not go to paying for Ms. Suleman's babies. Should you require a $750,000 heart-lung-kidney transplant, the last thing you will want to hear about is your unethical choices to drink, smoke, become a couch potato, and get fat. We are not talking about taxpayer money supporting a deadbeat, welfare mom. We are talking about insurance policy premiums that benefit all of us by providing coverage for care we could not afford ourselves.

Fourth, what sanctions would you impose upon Ms. Suleman that wouldn't be visited upon her babies and her parents? What would you force upon Ms. Suleman that wouldn't be a violation of fundamental human rights and might jeopardize your own rights and those of your own family. What restrictions would you demand that aren't more likely to be levied on woman, and far less likely on men. A great deal of what is being discussed is clearly misogyny.

Fifth, in an earlier post on this subject, I referenced an article, from that made a case for avoiding the problems of large multiples births, and the concomitant expenses, by making IVF more widely available through all health insurance plans. What seems paradoxical is supported by excellent research and analysis, and is in place in Sweden. Back up a couple of days to an earlier post by Lindsay, same subject, and you'll find it.

Sixth, you write, “As a society, we are responsible for ensuring that other children aren't visited with the health problems that Octomom has inflicted on her children...”. Change the words, “Octomom has inflicted on her” to “parents have inflicted on their”, and let's see how that plays out. Let's take examples like preventing mothers from birthing female children because there is a positive family history of breast cancer. I assume you are wanting to discuss fundamental issues, and not just how to stick to Ms. Suleman. How far are you willing to go in taking responsibility for ensuring...whatever? I would be in favor of what most European countries do for their children. Shortly after taking a new born home, a public health nurse makes an in-home visit to assess the health and caring of the baby. These in-home assessments continue with diminishing frequency as the infant gets older. We have no such child-focused advocacy and prevention system. This is one program that could do a great deal for children in our country.

Seventh, “Family Preservation Services” is a distinct school of practice, research, and policy that is embraced by many of our social service agencies, and taught in many of our schools of social work. You did not say it explicitly, but there is an undercurrent of thought that the infants should be separated from their mother. Please correct me if I am reading too much into your comments. For many others who comment here and in media reports, there seems to be an assumption that the babies should be separated from their mother, either to provide 'better' care, or to punish Ms. Suleman, or both. I can think of few alternatives that would be more counterproductive or more wrong.

Eighth, it's clear that you really want to make sure the mother doesn't have an easy time of it. Making things easier for a mother, who is raising many children, is the best way to make sure the babies have a decent, let alone easy, time of developing and becoming a family. You even want to scare off generous donors because you label them as complicit in a travesty. Is it not easy to see that they wish to be complicit in helping babies in need? The logical extension of your reasoning is to ban the March of Dimes from ministering to the needs of children born of crack mothers, alcoholics, and all high multiple births. Why the preoccupation with punishing, especially when the ones being punished are women and children.

Ninth, you hope that she will receive the psychiatric care she needs. Your hope is almost as unrealistic as Ms. Sulemon's thought process. We know that some types of therapy plus medication can be helpful. But most cases of BPD do not get treatment, and if they do, most do not yield to treatment. There are many reasons, not the least of which is the failure to adhere to a consistent schedule of therapy, for a long time, with lots of support from family, friends, and providers. Still, in the best of circumstances there are no assurances of success, and no quick fixes.


Thank you for your comments. Not until I read your words was I convinced that selective culling of pregnancies might be a good idea.

Would you please explain a few things. I don't understand that this issue is one of conservative vs liberal, fucking insane or otherwise.

If the object of this story were not a bitch, and not stupid, would you still have the same negative opinion?

I don't understand the connection of Ms. Suleman's babies to illegal Mexicans. Does the fact that they are biracial have anything to do with your views?

I agree she is mentally disturbed. You use the phrase 'Wacko', and I say BPD. However, none of this applies to you because prejudice, misogyny, and ignorance are not classified as mental illness.

How can so many people who know how to run other folks' lives be so blind to the fact that this woman had no idea she would be carrying 8 babies? Where are all the family valued pro-lifers who should be applauding her decision NOT to abort any of her fetuses? Why are we so damned petty about small things but refuse to be outraged about the big picture? Is is easier to beat up on this woman and her 14 kids than to face our own messy lives? What difference does her piddly government subsidy make when rich bankers are emptying out the treasury?

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