Babies as Commodities: Will the Suleman Octuplets Be the Next Dionnes?

In a dark chapter of Canadian history, the Dionne quintuplets were a more popular tourist attraction than Niagara Falls.  Back in 1934, the first known surviving quintuplets involved no reproductive technology – ethical or unethical.  The Dionne girls were the product of one egg, fertilized during sexual intercourse, splitting into five embryos.  What happened after they were born was a different matter and this is where the parallel to the Suleman octuplets begins.

The Dionnes were poor uneducated farmers who already struggled to support their five living older children (a sixth had died).  The Ontario government made the Dionne girls wards of the state and put a staff in charge of their care, which, in accord with the science of the day, meant isolation from germs, including those which might be carried by the girls’ mother with whom they were allowed minimal contact.

Back to the Sulemans. If you want to find criticism of how these children came to be, it is everywhere. I too will watch the investigation of the fertility specialist who implanted all of these fertilized eggs and the medical specialty now scrambling to prove it can police itself.  Nadya Suleman chose to have all of these children while the Dionnes did not.  But the Suleman children did not chose how they were made any more than the Dionne girls did.  And the Suleman children will not be able to control the way they may now be exploited any more than the Dionne girls could.

Looking at The Suleman Family Website [available in the morning of 2/16, by evening this site was down]  and reading about public relations reps. and reality shows, I am reminded of Quintland.  Between 1934 and 1943, an estimated three million tourists visited this Depression-era theme park in northern Ontario where these five little girls lived on display like zoo animals.  The Ontario government and local business made a half billion dollars from this circus, little of which came to the girls.  When, after nine years of litigation, the girls were returned to their family, they were sexually abused by their father who also marketed products with their name and image.  Still the public was more interested in owning a Dionne Quintuplet doll, than protecting the Dionne girls themselves.

The Dionne quintuplets should serve as a cautionary tale but fetishizing multiples continues.  Not lost on the surviving Dionnes themselves, they wrote an “Open Letter” in 1997 to the parents of another set of multiples.  It is a document which should be read by Nadya Suleman, and the Duggers, and Jon & Kate.  It is a plea from three old women whose lives, and those of the two sisters who predeceased them, were destroyed by the greed and prurience of family and community:

Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products.

Now, who should be responsible for taking care of the Suleman children?  We all should, just as we all should be responsible for all children.  But there are people who bear a greater responsibility for these fourteen kids (yes, I mean all of Nadya’s children) than I do and I think they should be ahead of me in line when the orthodontia bill needs to be paid. Of course, Nadya herself, who somehow thought money and child care would fall from the heavens to maintain her baby habit. But behind her, let’s put the man who provided the sperm if indeed he either supported or did not forbid its use to make all of these children. Let’s follow the sperm donor with all the medical personnel who were involved in the implantations.  Why should any of these people be allowed to remain aloof from the consequences of their actions?  If you are going to play a role in creating a baby, you should change diapers, buy food, pay bills, schedule and attend doctors visits (I am guessing a lot of doctors’ visits).  Any idea of the time commitment involved in occupational therapy alone?  I do.  Alot. Nadya Suleman has one autistic child.  How many of the newest eight will have special needs?

I don’t condemn Nadya Suleman for having children without being married or having a mate.  I don’t condemn her for being unemployed.  If she hadn’t been unemployed before she had kids, she likely would have been either unemployed or underemployed after she had kids.  In the U.S. there is very little support (economic or other) for mothers. I will condemn her if she exploits her kids.

I condemn both her and the medical professionals who took her money for treating children like just one more thing you can buy.  The Suleman octuplets came into the world as commodities, sold to a compulsive shopper by greedy technicians more concerned with selling the product than the physical or psychological well-being of anyone involved.

How about now we turn our attention to making sure these children, and all children, are well cared for.  One way we can do that is by refusing to watch the reality show or buy the octuplet-endorsed diapers.  Just say no. Let’s turn our attention to all mothers who need help supporting their children and discourage parents from supporting large families by selling them.  Babies aren’t just more stuff.  And parents have to be something better than pimps.


  1. Erin Moore February 17, 2009 I will not even get started because I think I’ve ranted about this woman enough lately, but great post, Jake. reply
  2. SJC February 18, 2009 The commodification of children is nothing new in this country, and certainly this particular illustration of it is far from the most egregious example. After the close of the slave trade in 1808, American white slaveowners prized their most fertile female slaves not only for their labor in the fields but also for their ability to produce new assets: little slaves who could be sold at the block or put to work in the fields. Currently, the primary victims of sexual slavery are children, sold by or stolen from parents in order that others can maximize their use as income producing assets.Today, the machinery of in vitro fertilization is a logical outgrowth of a society that cannot stop itself from consuming. People do not have a right, natural or otherwise, to bear children, to raise children, or to parent children. Like those who argued that surrogacy was just a matter of contract, post-industrial capitalist society has left the market in charge of who gets to buy themselves a little high tech impregnation and who does not. But, when technology provides a way for these customers to get pregnant, the means of production of pregnancy transforms the child into an output. And, presto, we have opened up a new market, available to all customers, with fertility experts as the providers of the service, with prices and reimbursement rates to measure the value.The only thing surprising about the Suleman (and the Duggers and the Dionnes) situation is its enormous scale, 14 kids. But, at its core is something very commonplace and very deceptive, a market exchange. If Nadya had a single one, the child would still be a commodity. reply
  3. Jake
    Twitter: Jakearyehmarcus
    February 18, 2009 SJC, are children commodities regardless of how and why they are made? The Duggers and the Dionnes did not use technology to make their children but have used their children (using the number of their children as a selling point) to make money. If Nadya Suleman had a single child she did not pay anyone to produce and did not use that child to make money, would the child still be a commodity? Are all children in capitalist societies commodities regardless of how they are made and how they are used?I think there are a few different ideas here I am trying to tease apart. reply
  4. Sarah February 18, 2009 Perhaps a tiered rating of these practices is appropriate. A singleton birth, naturally conceived, and not publicized for any sort of gain is at the lowest level for no to minimal use of the child as a commodity. Next would be parents who either pay to produce or profit from the use of their children as commodities. Last and worst would be those who pay to produce and/or profit from their children by engaging in egregious practices (see Pimping out a toddler for “lots of cash” would easily fall into the third bucket. reply
  5. Jake
    Twitter: Jakearyehmarcus
    February 18, 2009 I think the tiering may work for sanctions but someone or thing either is a commodity or isn’t. :)Not much of a T.V. watcher but I decided watching the Duggers mission to El Salvador was research. Couldn’t help but notice “Toddlers and Tiaras” came on right afterward. Never heard of it but the five minutes I could stand were really disgusting. reply
  6. sjc February 18, 2009 JC, are children commodities regardless of how and why they are made? YES. Commodification is objective. Intent is irrelevant.The Duggers and the Dionnes did not use technology to make their children but have used their children using the number of their children as a selling point) to make money. If Nadya Suleman had a single child she did not pay anyone to produce and did not use that child to make money, would the child still be a commodity? YES. Are all children in capitalist societies commodities regardless of how they are made and how they are used? All humans in this capitalist society are commodities in relation to something.That relation is historically specific and determines the class structure of the society.All capitalist societies are different.Slavery and “free labor” co-existed in capitalist N.America for 300 years, the differentiating factor was the wage.English and French capitalist systems evolved in quite different ways and at different rates of growth.The prototype (IMHO) for human as commodity and as income (or value) producing asset is the historic oppression of women, whose ability to bear children is transformed form a biological function into a mechanism for subordination.In advanced post industrial capitalist societies, the continuing subordination of women is disguised by market relations and is somehow seen as improving compared to pre-capitalist societies. They are able to produce, just like men, but their ability and potential to reproduce makes their production worth less, so women continue to lag behind men in average per-capita wages.And, always will. reply
  7. Jake
    Twitter: Jakearyehmarcus
    February 18, 2009 Agreed, SJC, as long as we are clear we are talking about children in capitalist societies (and I think we are).reply
  8. sjc February 18, 2009 I’m not talking about children in capitalist societies, I am talking about children in this capitalist society. One of the reasons for the persistence of capitalism is its adaptability. I don’t know if commodification in other capitalist societies developed in the same ways it did here and in parts of northern Europe, so I am not making claims about those societies. I’m tired now.