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Media should stop calling Nadya Suleman "Octomom"

Media should stop calling Nadya Suleman "Octomom"

Picture of William Heisel

Octomom, Nadya Suleman, Michael Kamrava, William Heisel, Antidote

Peg the moment the mainstream media lost its moral high ground to January 2009, when Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets in California.

From that point forward, Suleman was referred to as the "Octomom." Dehumanized by the name, Suleman was subjected to constant critiques of her sanity, her parenting skills, her love for her children and everything else all under the guise of serious reporting. (I stupidly used the slur, too, in two posts about how to investigate fertility clinics.) While not blameless, Suleman has become fair game for relentless and vicious innuendo. When two publicists offered to help her handle the media onslaught, they received death threats.

This week, when the doctor who implanted the embryos that became those eight children had his license taken away in California, the media had an opportunity to reframe the story. This doctor had put Suleman's life in jeopardy – and the lives of at least two other women – the Medical Board of California found. Suleman was lucky to have survived, and her children were lucky to have been born without severe disabilities, the board found.

And yet, once again the headlines read:

Octomom's Fertility Doctor Has License Revoked

‘Octomom' doctor's license to be revoked, state medical board rules

'Octomom' fertility doctor loses medical license

This is not how mothers of multiple children are usually portrayed in the media. Many of us remember how Newsweek wanted so badly to make Bobbi McCaughey, mother of the nation's first living septuplet, into a folk hero that it retouched a cover photo to make her teeth whiter.

But Suleman was single and sought fertility treatments to have her children, so that makes her less sympathetic, right?

Yet, every month brings us news of another single celebrity showing off a baby bump and playing coy about the identity of the father. Are these women pilloried?

This also is not how victims of medical misdeeds are usually portrayed in the media. Reporters – including this one – have made careers out of writing sympathetically about patients who suffer at the hands of physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies. Why is what happened to Suleman so different? In less than 10 years, she was given hormone stimulation drugs for 14 cycles and had embryos implanted in her 10 times. The doses of hormones were high enough that the board charged Kamrava with repeated negligent acts just for administering the hormones.

Yes, she chose to keep returning to Dr. Michael Kamrava for fertility treatments. Already the mother of six when the octuplets were born, she told the Today Show that she had been hoping only to have one more child when she went back to Kamrava in 2008. The medical board rightly placed the bulk of the burden on Kamrava, saying that "While the evidence did not establish (Kamrava) as a maverick or deviant physician, oblivious to standards of care in IVF practices, it certainly demonstrated that he did not exercise sound judgment in the transfer of 12 embryos" to Suleman.

What should Kamrava have done?

The board wrote that when Suleman came to him for more fertility treatments, he should have recognized that her behavior was "outside the norm" and referred her to a mental health professional. The board's expert in the case, Dr. Victor Yutaka Fujimoto, said that after Suleman's first four children were born, Kamrava should have recommended counseling.

I thought of Suleman last week when I attended a talk by Dr. Alex Cahana, the chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at the University of Washington. Cahana is a big believer in treating the whole patient, not just the patient's immediate symptoms. I asked Cahana about a recent Mayo Clinic study on a condition known as Morgellons disease. People who say they have Morgellons describe a constant sensation of horrible itching that causes them to scratch so hard they often bleed. The Mayo study said that Morgellons patients are suffering from a terrible fantasy.

Cahana said that he would not start by telling someone claiming to have Morgellons that needed to see a therapist. Instead, he would help them break down their symptoms and see if, together, they could identify a root cause. Perhaps there is a change in diet or routine that could be identified. Perhaps there is an allergy. Perhaps the person truly would need to seek psychological help.

The point is, Cahana told me, patients often feel powerless, and a good physician will help them empower themselves.

Suleman went to Kamrava as a troubled patient. A woman who wanted to have more children than any single parent could handle, she was treated instead by her physician as a customer. And now the media have chosen to treat her as a criminal.

At a minimum, she should be given the dignity of a real name.

Photo credit: Parade float of Suleman, courtsey of Erik Fitzpatrick via Flickr


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She is a criminal. It is criminal the way she treats the children, especially the octuplets. Guess you haven't bothered to do any research or watch any of the hideous videos she made in her quest for fame and fortune.

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Great piece- thoughtful and well written. Its a shame we don't see more real journalism like this.

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Oh come on, they are equally to blame and if not one person had ever called her Octomom nothing would have changed this nightmare.  She lied from her very first interview because she knew what she had done was wrong. The public would be outraged and she needed them to buy into her story so she could get them to give her money.  Confident her medical files were closed she created the improbable tale of being implanted with six frozen embryos and having two split.  What she couldn't have known was that the Calif. Medical Board was weighing her right to privacy against the harm her doctor presented to the public.  For over a year she told her sad tale.  She said she just wanted to give her frozen babies a chance at life.  They were her babies, her children, she loved them. She could no longer afford their storage fees and the bills would come due and she would worry about their future. Of course we later learn she never used frozen embryos ever.  In fact she has 29 frozen this moment!   She is a liar and a fraud.  She will say what she thinks someone wants to hear to get what she wants regardless of the consequences.  She is not hated because someone called her Octomom.  She is hated because she was the chronically unemployed mother of 6 children under seven when she gave birth to the octuplets.  Three of her children were on disability, one has autism. She spent the last two months of her pregnancy in the hospital while her six kids lived with her 70 year old mother.  On the day the octuplets were born she didn't have cribs for them to sleep in, any cozy layettes to comfort them or even any diapers. These babies were born homeless.  The financial strain of supporting this large family on a fixed income caused her mothers home to go into foreclosure two months after Nadya moved into her shiny new home. Octomom purchased her new home with money from her media interviews ( interviews where she belittled her mother). Her new home was completely remodeled with donations.  She is a monster who thinks that looking good equals being a good parent.  She fails at both.  Just yesterday bikini photos were released while she announced her upcoming car wash benefit she is having for herself.  She is throwing a charity benefit for herself.   

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She's hated and vilified not because of a nickname, but because of her wanton disregard of the health and well being of her children and her inability to tell the truth.

Despite making millions in the first year of this fiasco, she is once again broke and begging for handouts. Instead of taking a job to provide for her family, she's chosen to attempt a path to infamy by posing in bikinis and participating in spanking fetish videos. Money that was donated to be used for the children was instead spent on plastic surgery for her, lip fillers, fake eyelashes and manicures while the smallest of the Octuplets, Jonah, still hasn't had his cleft lip repaired.

What this woman and her doctor did was deliberately try to create a supersized pregnancy in the hopes that they would be rewarded with a lucrative media contract. Suleman even went so far as to attempt to trade mark the term "octomom" in the hopes of licensing merchandise.

I will agree I hate the term "octomom", but only because it implies that she is a mother. Videos and her own statements have shown time and time again that she is incapable of being nurturing in the way her 14 children require. The oldest ones resent the lifestyle she has created. They act out with her and each other. The youngest 8 show developmental delays and are locked in cribs staring at a tv screen for hours on end as their only stimulation. It's a sad state of affairs at the poorly run orphanage in La Habra.

A nickname didn't cause any of this. Selfish choices did.

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These poor babies were born for one reason, to make Nayda Suleman rich and famous. It is correct Suleman was not prepared for the babies, why, she thought someone else would provide thiese items and everything else she would ever want , for the rest of her life.

Suleman admits to locking her mother in a trunk of a car, very similar to the way she now locks these babies in cages. Fed like animals, Christmas pictures with ony half of the kids, remodeled her blody, but now could end up homless.

This woman is a criminal, a moral criminal. When will a real reporter disclose everything this woman has done over the years, when???

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Really thoughtful piece, William. Made me look at the story from angles I hadn't considered -- the mark of excellent journalism. Well done!

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