The premise of the 2006 movie Children of Men directed by Alfonso CuarÃ³n, was that of a world that had turned childless, due to an unexplained phenomenon that had caused everybody to become sterile. For many years no one is able to conceive, so when people find out that a young woman is pregnant, she is hunted for her precious cargo, but also revered for her fertility. The current obsession with multiple pregnancies and large families on television, would probably make a good plot line for a sequel to the aforementioned movie, with people reverting to almost the same fertility worship practiced by our prehistoric ancestors.
About 70,000 years ago the Toba volcano in Indonesia erupted. Many researchers argue that the catastrophic explosion and its aftermath brought our species to the brink of extinction. This fertility "craze" in our ancestors would have been understandable then, as a few thousand individuals struggled to survive and increase their numbers. It's safe to say though, now that our species is fast approaching the 7 billion mark, that we have successfully averted the danger of becoming extinct, so why are we again so invested in stories of families that grow exponentially?
This trend has already spawned reality shows such as John and Kate Plus 8 now renamed Kate Plus 8 (for reasons that were plastered all over the tabloids); Raising Sextuplets; the threatening sounding Sextuplets Take Manhattan; the just plain scary 19 Kids and Counting, among others, where the "miracle of life" is taken to the same extremes as all of those activities that have become endemic to American culture, and that of late seem to carry the prefix "over": overeating, overspending, overcompensating... Why have 1 or 2 children, when you can have 6, 7 or 8 and be in Dancing with the Stars?
Multiple births were seen as a biological rarity until recently. News of quadruplets, quintuplets, or sextuplets seemed wondrous and made for quirky headlines. With the aid of fertilization treatments however, these occurrences have become more common place.
Whereas in most countries of the European Union there is a limit by law on the amount of embryos that can be placed at once in a woman's womb, there is no such legislation in the U.S. With only a recommendation against it from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, some fertility clinics place up to 10 embryos in a womb at once, thus making scenarios like that of the Octomom possible. Her comic book villain nickname seems to sum up our feelings of slight revulsion, but of also being morbidly engaged.
For some people struggling to have children, the arguably unethical practice of placing several embryos in a womb at once, represents a higher chance of conceiving without having to go through several expensive rounds of fertilization treatment. However, despite all the advances in prenatal and neonatal care, multiple pregnancies are still risky, as they often lead to premature labor. According to the American Pregnancy Association, a premature baby is susceptible to a myriad of health problems such as hypoglycemia, respiratory distress syndrome and neonatal jaundice. The Mayo Clinic also adds bleeding of the brain (intracranial hemorrhage) as well as vision and intestinal problems to the list. There are usually long term developmental problems too, including a higher incidence of motor impairment and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), just to name a few. For some, however, these stakes seem like a small price to pay to be able to carve themselves a niche in reality TV, a genre that, at its worst, likes to reward unrestrained, over the top self indulgence.
There is an escapism of sorts in this self indulgence, this throwing care to the wind. The super abundance that permeates every aspect of American culture from serving sizes in restaurants to the size of our TVs, is our new American Dream, where you don't have to be rich to have too much of everything, including children. That's why as I watch the matriarch of the Duggar clan push her 19th child into this world, and then watch the baby struggle in the NICU at the hospital, I realize how much some of us are willing to sacrifice for that piece of American Dream. "This should really be her last baby" I say to myself, but then the show wouldn't be called "19 Kids and Counting" and, as they say, the show must go on.