Nadya Suleman is our local, single, unemployed, plastic surgery-enhanced welfare mother of 14, many of them "special-needs" children. Her story is straight out of Brothers Grimm, and by now the world knows that all of her children, including her octuplets, born in January, were conceived through in-vitro fertilization.
"Does she live in a shoe?" asked my friend's 4-year-old daughter.
Suleman is a staple for Dr. Phil intervention, tabloid prattle and message-board hostility, but underlying it all is an emerging story that pits her against both pro-lifers and pro-choicers.
"It's a Rubik's Cube of reproductive issues," admits Colleen Holmes, executive director of Eagle Forum, a pro-life conservative grassroots organization. "It takes childbearing out of the family and is not in the best interest of the children."
In a RadarOnline "video showdown" with Suleman and her mother, Angela Suleman, before the children were born, Suleman described them as "human beings that are growing. That are related to you."
Suleman's mother snapped back, referring to the embryos her daughter had used: "They were frozen, and you didn't have to do anything."
"They were lives," Suleman insisted.
In other circumstances, pro-lifers might have taken up her cause, proud of a media-magnet example of a woman who would not destroy any embryos for any reason. Indeed, pro-life blogger Jill Stanek says that Suleman's decision to not abort her babies or selectively reduce their numbers was pro-life. But beyond that, Stanek states, "Many pro-lifers believe the process of in-vitro fertilization is unhealthy and/or immoral." She wrote on conservative World Net Daily, "I tend toward Catholic teaching that it is morally wrong to create the image of God in a Petri dish."
Normally on the other side of such divides are pro-choice advocates like Leslie Marshall, a Talk USA nationally syndicated host in Los Angeles. Instead, Marshall is stunned to see that Suleman, so vehemently opposed to abortion and the destruction of fetuses, is drawing the ire of the pro-life movement.
"You would think she would be their [pro-life] poster child," Marshall says. "A woman who can't afford these babies but had them, didn't abort them -- or murder them, as a pro-lifer would put it. ... I was surprised they didn't erect a monument or shrine to her."
"Freedom, including women's reproductive freedom, entails responsibility," says Carole Lieberman, a pro-choice Beverly Hills psychiatrist who filed the first complaint with Child Protective Services against Suleman. Lieberman tells L.A. Weekly, "Nadya is the poster child for women's reproductive irresponsibility. Pro-choice essentially means that she had the choice over her body in regard to reproduction. She had several options, including donating her frozen eggs or giving the babies up for adoption."
"She illustrates the problem with 'every sperm is sacred,' 'every egg is sacred,'" says Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood. "She's a poster child for irresponsible childbearing."
For anyone keeping score, the anti-choice people think Suleman made the wrong choice and the pro-choice people think she made the wrong choice. Normally only in fiction would such a scenario unfold.
Some pro-lifers have blamed the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling for the situation, saying it has led to the erosion of social norms and cut men out of the picture. But Liz Owen, a pro-choice activist in Valley Village since the early 1990s and mother of twins by in-vitro fertilization, says, "'Pro-choice' should not be equated with bad medical decisions."
Regardless of what the various sides think of Suleman's resolve to have all those preemies, most of the feeble bundles are home after a reported $1 million in medical bills at Kaiser Hospital in Bellflower.
Suleman's medical bills are giving the two sides in the abortion wars something to haggle over, while they seem to agree that the eight babies deserve society's support now that they're here -- but with caveats.
Pro-choicer Marshall says of the pro-life crowd, "Now they complain because they have to pay for them? So ... it's okay to pay for the unborn, but once you're born, forget it?"
Pro-lifer Stanek is equally ready to slam the other side, telling the Weekly, "They don't think children should be conceived in adverse financial circumstances. But they aren't giving Suleman a break. They're mad she gets financial help from the government, and mad at the thought of her making money from book and movie deals."
Holmes tries to explain that being pro-life means more than caring about persuading women not to have abortions, saying her greater issue is that "life needs to be protected." She draws a line at government assistance aimed at the parents, saying, "We don't agree with welfare, though. The focus should be on the children."
But so far, much of this tangled tale has been about the adults.
Among other standout moments, feminist icon and lawyer Gloria Allred secured 24-hour nursing care and housing for all of Suleman's children through an organization called Angels in Waiting, founded by nurse Linda West-Conforti, a specialist in care for premature foster babies.
Now, West-Conforti has publicly accused Suleman of not caring about her children, and of volunteering to feed them only when cameras are present; Suleman has fired Angels in Waiting, claiming its nurses spied on her; and Allred has publicly questioned the children's safety, calling security at the Suleman home questionable.
Before those events, Allred had hinted that donations to the family were lacking. Perhaps that is because Suleman, is seen as an avid self-promoter with who's 'had a lot of work done' (cutting her nose to spite her case). Allred had promised, "All donations would be used to secure experienced and trained professionals who would provide much-needed care, and not 1 cent would go to Nadya or anyone else in her family."
When Dr. Phil jumped into the fray, he argued to his TV audience that he needed to play a role because "of all the angst -- I felt that somebody had to step up and show some leadership here. So I offered to mediate the situation." In a contrived-for-TV turn of events, Suleman, a food-stamp recipient, had reluctantly accepted help from Angels in Waiting on the March 10 Dr. Phil show.
"None of this could have happened without you, Dr. Phil," Allred said during the bizarre announcement segment of the show.
Now, the pro-choice and pro-life activists are launching into an argument about who is going to help Suleman more, both at this stage and in the difficult years to come. After all, as Suleman lectured her own mother in an Online video, "You can't go back and alter the past."
That fact has former Planned Parenthood president Feldt predicting that, "Of all the people that are going to help her, nine out of 10 of them will be pro-choice."
But Stanek takes a different tack, arguing via e-mail, "I don't think you'll find it is pro-lifers who so vehemently oppose Suleman's decision. That said, we do believe in most circumstances children are best raised in a two-parent, married (mother and father) home. Yes, I think the children would be best off adopted out to married male/female couples. Furthermore, the female body and human psyche were not made to have and raise litters of children the same age (different from large families), another problem with in-vitro fertilization."
Even on controversial wedge issues like this one, pro-lifer Holmes relays, "Yeah, the two sides can unite in some areas."
This piece originally ran in the LA Weekly.