The last couple of weeks have seen a significant amount of coverage on the issue of big families. Much of this has been sparked by the single mother of six who gave birth to a set of octuplets in January in California. The story is full of issues relating to morality and what one believes about the significance of children, the family, procreation and life in general. Central to many individual's beliefs on these issues is their faith, but that is not what is getting the attention in the news stories. The Philadelphia Inquirer's article on the subject, published Wednesday, is a case-in-point. The headline of the article put me off initially because it implies that the controversy relating to the California octuplets related to large families in general:
Octuplet case increases scrutiny on large families
The rest of the article isn't much better.
The more central controversy to the octuplets story relates to the use of in vitro fertilization and doctor's efforts to increase the chances of having children by implanting more embryos than necessary, which increases the chances of multiple births. Large families are in a way the side issue.
Why does the scrutiny have to be on large families? In an interview on Terry Gross's Fresh Air program Monday, reporter Liza Mundy talked about how it has become routine for doctors to reduce the number of babies in a multiple-birth situation induced by IVF. Significant morality issues arises that go beyond the more basic decision of whether to have an abortion, particularly when the intention is to have as many "options" in terms of gender, health and even the number.
Whether or not this is ethical in the medical community is very much up for debate and does not divide along the traditional choice/right to life lines.
Overall, the Inquirer article focuses mostly on the trends relating to large families and only briefly mentions religious issues:
Society looks most critically on those furthest from what's typical, said Arnold, herself a mother of six. If a family is Catholic, "that's a good excuse for why you would have so many children," she said.
For others, religion is not the driver. Large families just feel right - something couples experienced themselves as children or never experienced and therefore always wanted.
In an age when many parents want to provide every advantage to their children and hover endlessly, large families often talk about a team spirit that gets them through the days.
Stereotypes about people with large families are frustrating for me because people often assume I come from a Catholic family since I have five wonderful siblings. (People also make presumptions about couples who do not have children yet.) I wish the article had explored more whether there were "non-Catholic" religious reasons individuals decided to have large families. The Catholic assumption relates to the faith's official rules regarding birth-control, but there can be other religious reasons people decide they want more children than is considered normal these days.
The article also quotes a Rabbi discussing how prejudice against large families is one of the last remaining in our society. But the controversy surrounding the California octuplets relates less to the size of the family and to the medical issues surrounding medically induced multiple births. Focusing on that issue, I believe, would have made for a stronger article and for better overall coverage.
Photo of the Canadian Dionne sisters, the first quintuplets known to survive infancy, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.