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The Hard Questions Multiply


Like most of the country, Marshall Fishwick had the McCaughey septuplets on his mind last week. They were so much on his mind, in fact, that they inspired him to prepare a lecture for his class on popular culture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

But the point Professor Fishwick wanted to press home had little to do with the marvels - or perils - of modern technology. Instead, he wanted to talk to his students about ... hypocrisy.

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"Everyone around the world maintains that the greatest problem facing humanity is population control," says Fishwick. "And here we are in this country glorifying seven children induced by a technology we don't need."

Of course, countless couples would argue otherwise - insisting that the technology Fishwick questions has helped them achieve their dreams of having a child of their own. In fact, the quest for genetic offspring has fueled the rapid development and use of reproductive technology, ranging from fertility drugs to frozen embryos at more than 300 US clinics.

The McCaugheys' own doctor defended the births, questioning whether society should dictate the size of families or their reproductive choices.

But Fishwick insists the story is about more than individual rights. On a national level he says it sends the wrong signal to a world that is struggling to control population growth. "It's a form of hypocrisy."

The humanities professor is not alone in questioning the larger implications of the story.

As the media continues to breathlessly chart the progress of Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey and their seven babies, a growing number of observers are casting the event in a different light - and are beginning to delve beneath the surface of the story.

Births raise big issues

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Within days of the septuplets' Nov. 19 birth, many people began raising questions about a variety of issues - including whether it is time to regulate the multibillion-dollar infertility treatment industry; whether society is rushing too quickly down the road of reproductive medical technology; whether enough attention is being paid to promoting adoption as a parenting alternative; and whether it was fair that the McCaugheys received so much attention and support while a black couple in Washington, who gave birth to sextuplets (a rare occurrence) last May, barely made a blip on the media's radar screen and received far fewer offers of help.

No one downplays the efforts of the Iowa Methodist Medical Center team that safely delivered the septuplets, or the community outpouring from Carlisle, Iowa, the McCaughey's hometown.

But some cultural observers like Fishwick are trying to place the event - and society's reaction to it - in a larger context.

Although Fishwick does not criticize the McCaugheys, he sees the rapidly growing appetite for fertility treatments as a symptom of a larger problem, something sociologists are calling "affluenza."

"It's the disease of wanting more and more and refusing to accept any boundaries on material and physical things," he says. Americans believe they can "mass produce anything," he says, including babies now. "And at the end of the 20th century, it is immoral to have multiple births when the world and society can't sustain them."

Those are strong words, but they are meant to provoke deeper thought - something that many observers say the news media should be doing a much better job of. Media critic Mark Jurkowitz, who writes for The Boston Globe, says the media's coverage of the septuplet story is "reflective of where the news industry is going, and that's into sort of side shows and circus shows."

Redefining what's news

Since the demise of the Cold War, he argues, the media have lost their traditional news narrative - a situation not helped by the fact that there don't seem to be any large political or economic debates, or new ideas, emerging from traditional news centers such as Washington.

"In the meantime, we're just incredibly distracted by any freak show we can find," Mr. Jurkowitz says. "These kinds of events are just diversions, while the big story hatches unbeknown to us. If the media were really doing their job, maybe we'd be out there, looking for the bigger story, for the shifting fault lines of a story, even if it's not as obvious as seven babies. The glacial trend stories, that ones that emerge over time, seem to take us by surprise."

Even so, he says, there are still important questions beneath the surface of the McCaughey story, "questions almost too hard to think about. Like, have we exceeded our natural mandate as a species, or is this all part of the plan. That's one of the great unfathomable debates of all time," says Jurkowitz.

"We're OK at raising those issues in the media," he says. "But I don't think we sustain them. We leave them and move on very quickly. We don't connect things around an issue the way we probably should."

For others, the septuplet story raises questions about the very nature of motherhood - and the almost obsessive social and cultural emphasis on genetic parenting as the only truly satisfying route to a family.

"We make such a myth of motherhood that 30 years after feminism, a woman still feels unfulfilled and inadequate if she can't have her own child," says Anita Barrows, a San Francisco-area psychologist who sees many women in her practice. "We still have the concept of one's own child being the carrier of one's identity into the future. It's the myth of individualism."

In that context, she says, women like Bobbi McCaughey are portrayed as virtual "superwomen," who - through the use of modern medical technology - become not just mothers, but "supermothers."

It's a dangerous route, says Ms. Barrows, who argues that America's cultural love affair with stories of individual heroism often diverts attention from underlying problems. In this case, she says, instead of glorifying technology, people should be examining the role it has played in causing problems - including the connections that have been made between infertility and man-made substances such as nuclear waste and PCBs.

"This country has been seduced into imagining that technology is the savior," she says. "I think it's very hard for people to imagine that technology might be the baseline problem. Yet we're looking to technology to save us from things that technology has done to us. There's something very, very misdirected in that.

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