Caplan argues persuasively that something went wrong here, but I want to address a few areas where I disagree with him, or at least with how his argument is presented.
The most obvious questions raised by this sad saga include: How did Nadya Suleman become a fertility patient? And how did she get eight embryos implanted when she already had six young children to care for in a tiny house, with no partner and no income?I agree with his assessment that doctors should set limits on who can use reproductive technology. That said, Dr. Steinberg is correct that "there are people who like to have big families", and in many, and probably most, cases physicians should be willing to help them. Dr. Grifo is also right that he is "not a policeman for reproduction." But neither of those quotes really explain why a doctor should choose to help this particular woman have more children. While there are many people who could successfully raise extremely large families, it seems unlikely that Ms. Suleman is one of them. One does not have to police reproduction to think about what is in the best interest of the patient. People often want something that is not best for them, or their family, such as Ms. Suleman's other 6 children who are already fighting for limited resources.
Some fertility doctors would answer that it's not their job to decide how many children a person can have. Jeffrey Steinberg, medical director of the Fertility Institutes, which has clinics in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York City, was quoted as saying: "Who am I to say that six is the limit? There are people who like to have big families."
James Grifo, a renowned fertility specialist at New York University, had little time for those wondering why Suleman was a patient. "I don't think it's our job to tell them how many babies they're allowed to have," he reportedly said. "I am not a policeman for reproduction in the United States."
With all due respect, the idea that doctors should not set limits on who can use reproductive technology to make babies is ethically bonkers.
If the doctor facilitating this procedure knows the patient cannot care for the children, they are not just doing harm to the patients family, but are, in essence, helping to steal from society as a whole. Further in the article, Caplan writes:
The other major ethical problem raised by this story is the hijacking of health-care dollars by someone acting irresponsibly.
Suleman had to know that starting a pregnancy that might create eight tiny lives was to risk killing herself, as well as killing or severely disabling one or more of the babies. Fortunately, she made it through the pregnancy. But the cost of neonatal care for her eight new children probably will exceed $1 million.
When they are discharged from intensive care, more millions of dollars in medical costs likely await, not to mention the help Suleman will need just to handle all of her children's basic needs.
Again, I agree with the general thrust of Caplan's argument. Taxpayers or insurance companies should not have to pay for the health-care costs that Suleman voluntarily creates. It's crazy. My only objection is to the implications regarding starting such a pregnancy that might be a risk to disabling one or more of the babies. It's certainly an accurate description, but I am not entirely sure I want to say that it would be better for the child not to be born at all than to be born disabled. That is a far more complex issue. It is still certainly objectionable in terms of Suleman's inability to care for the children, especially if one was disabled. If that is what Caplan means, than I agree with him completely.
Then, sadly, he has to bring regulation into it:
If the medical profession is unwilling or unable to police its own, then government needs to get involved. We already have rules governing who can get involved with adoption and foster care. Shouldn't these minimal requirements be extended to fertility treatment? And shouldn't some limit be set on how many embryos can be implanted at one time...
I am not sure whether or not government needs to get involved. I certainly agree that physicians must take ethical responsibility in terms of deciding who to provide treatment to, but if they fail in some extreme cases, such as this one, does that mean that regulation is the answer? I think it is generally a bad idea to make public policy decisions based on extreme cases. Not only do they tend to cloud or decision making with our emotional responses, they often are, truly, exceptions to the rule, and as such laws and regulations designed to address them tend to work poorly.
But, if we were to invoke government involvement, what would the cost of regulations be?
Would we allow only a certain amount of children per family? If so, that discriminates against those would-be parents that can support a large family. Would we decide that only those who can afford children have the right to care? That seems more reasonable. Of course, it is also a bit hypocritical in a society where welfare regulations economically encourage the poor to have more children naturally. There is a difference between allowing people to have children and helping them to, as an individual actor, but in terms of public policy I think it is less clear. The lawmakers are not helping or allowing parents to have children, but instead allowing them to have children naturally and allowing them to have children with a medical intervention or just allowing them to have children naturally.
Further, would the regulations hurt families that wish to have more children (and are capable of supporting them)? It is almost unheard of for regulations to not affect innocent bystanders, if only by the cost in time and effort to prove they can support more children. Are these costs greater than the cost of allowing the seemingly rare outliers like Ms. Suleman to have children? This has not been adequately addressed in order to determine if government involvement is appropriate.
On the other hand, I see very little harm in reducing the amount of embryos that can be implanted at one time, assuming there is no evidence of some advantage to having children that way.
It's worth reading the whole article, Caplan is a great thinker and enjoyable writer.