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Octuplets' birth spawns outrage from public

As the economy sours, many express concern over the many costs associated with the event.

February 07, 2009|Jessica Garrison, Kimi Yoshino and Catherine Ho

A beaming Dr. Karen Mapes appeared on "Larry King Live" this week to discuss the epic birth of octuplets she supervised at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Bellflower, but the ticker at the bottom of the screen said it all: "OCTUPLETS OUTRAGE."

The story of Whittier mom Nadya Suleman has quickly turned from medical miracle to public fury -- so much so that Suleman herself complained in an interview that aired Friday on NBC's "Today" show that society is unfairly judging her.

"I feel as though I've been under the microscope because I chose this unconventional life," she said, suggesting there is a double standard because she's a single mother.

Instead of eliciting understanding and sympathy, her interview fueled more controversy.

Suleman is an unemployed graduate student, lives with her parents and already had six children under the age of 8. She has become a lightning rod for criticism for the nation's healthcare woes, the economic crisis and the medical ethics of in vitro fertilization.

The reaction is decidedly different from what occurred in 1998, when the first set of octuplets born in the United States were met with curiosity more than scorn. The Houston octuplets also had two parents and were born during better economic times.

"Ten years ago, this would have been a medical miracle -- heartwarming, everyone would have been thrilled," said Allan Mayer, a crisis management specialist and principal partner at 42West in Los Angeles. "If everyone was riding high and feeling flush . . . it would be more of a 'live and let live' attitude. Now everyone is counting pennies. There's a lot less forgiveness these days than there would have been at the height of the boom. . . . The public is almost primed to go very quickly from joy to suspicion and fury."

Much of the frustration comes from all the questions Suleman has yet to answer: what responsible fertility clinic would transfer so many embryos into a 33-year-old mother who already had six children and said she made it clear she did not believe in selective reduction? And how is she planning to provide both financial and emotional support to so many young children?

Operators at the hospital fielded calls from more than two dozen disgruntled Kaiser members complaining about the mom's super-sized healthcare tab as they are struggling to pay for the medical care they need.

Kaiser said the number of angry calls declined after the hospital made it clear it had nothing to do with getting Suleman pregnant.

Some Kaiser members also e-mailed The Times. One asked the paper to "cover the discontent of the Kaiser octuplets," fearing that the cost of hospitalizing Suleman and the octuplets will be borne by current members.

Kaiser declined to say how much Suleman's care is costing. According to records from the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the average charge for a cesarean section with complications is $7,095 per day.

Suleman's care, though, goes far beyond even the scale for complicated deliveries, with 46 doctors, nurses and assistants in the delivery room. The average daily charge for one baby with "significant problems" is $3,063. And the average charge per day for one postpartum stay without an operating procedure is $3,029.

Using this data as a conservative estimate, the 12-day-old octuplets have already racked up nearly $300,000 in charges. Suleman was hospitalized for more than 9 weeks.

Suleman said she tried unsuccessfully for seven years to get pregnant through artificial insemination and medication. Each of her 14 children has been conceived through in vitro fertilization and using the same sperm donor and fertility specialist, she told NBC. Six embryos were transferred, resulting in two sets of twins, she said.

"I wanted them all transferred," Suleman said. "Those are my children, and that's what was available and I used them. So, I took a risk. It's a gamble. It always is. . . . And it turned out perfectly."

Suleman has yet to name the doctor or clinic. The California Medical Board has said that it is investigating whether there was a violation of the standard of care. Most fertility doctors follow guidelines that recommend implanting no more than one or two embryos in women younger than 35.

Michael Furtney, one of Suleman's publicists, said he had been taken aback at some of the public reactions to the event -- which included death threats against the mother and people boycotting firms that he had done business with because of anger about the case.

"It is sad," Furtney said. "When you move from an ordinary person to celebrity life, there are no bars or limits. . . . It is the death of privacy."

He asked for people to be more tolerant until Suleman has told her story but said that at a time when the economy is tanking and people are uncertain of their futures, "she makes a handy target."

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