Nadya Suleman, aka Octomom, is now the mother of 14 children -- eight newborns and their six older brothers and sisters. She has also managed to give birth to debate on issues as far ranging as welfare, reproductive technology, health care and celebrity worship (Ms. Suleman is said to have an Angelina Jolie fixation). She has even generated heated discussion about the tort system, because the young mother could have paid for her miracle babies through the $168,000 awarded for a back injury she suffered in 1999 at a psychiatric hospital where she worked -- an injury, it should be noted, that did not prevent her from delivering, on Jan. 26, more living babies than once thought humanly possible.
But in all of this punditry one question goes missing: Where is Octodad? Surely Ms. Suleman's babies have a father. Yet his role in the baby palooza is barely mentioned. Not that this should surprise anyone. The reaction to Ms. Suleman and her brood typifies our cultural ambivalence about fathers, an ambivalence fed in no small measure by the fertility industry.
On first thought, Americans seem really keen on fathers. We fret about the emotional impact of father absence and insist "that responsibility does not end at conception," as then-candidate Barack Obama put it in a memorable speech last Father's Day. We excoriate "deadbeat dads" who fail to pay their share of their children's upbringing; in fact, the stimulus bill adds $1 billion to child-support enforcement. Married fathers who don't step up and share the burdens of diapers and pediatrician appointments are condemned, in the words of one much-discussed book of essays, as "bastards on the couch." After all, the argument goes, a father is just as much a parent as a mother.
Except when we decide he's not, as did Ms. Suleman and her medical enablers. According to media reports, the male friend who provided the sperm for all of Suleman's 14 children had begged her to stop after the first six -- to no avail. Having consented to the use of his sperm, he would have been expected to give up control over the future children created with them. More commonly, sperm banks offer young men who will remain anonymous $200 for a little R&R that they would happily engage in without renumeration; as the Fairfax Cryobank in Virginia has advertised: "Why not do it for money?" Donors -- or, more precisely, sellers -- sign contracts that assure them, contrary to Father's Day rhetoric, that responsibility really does end at conception.
Sperm banks and fertility doctors hardly bear sole responsibility for defining fathers down to chromosome factories. Clearly, donors themselves happily agree to their downgraded status. Their nonchalance is in line with the widespread assumption that we should expand the rubric of "a woman's right to choose" to include not just abortion -- where a woman's decision understandably carries more moral weight than a man's -- to the care of and responsibility for actual children, where it's not at all clear why that should be the case.
True, studies of "choice mothers," as single, financially independent mothers call themselves, suggest that most of them had wanted to find a husband to be father to their kids before they decided to go it alone. But once they make that decision, they often choose anonymous donors precisely because they don't have to worry about the fathers interfering with their -- or is it her? -- children. Shortly before Ms. Suleman made headlines, the New York Times Magazine published an article, notably titled "2 Kids + 0 Husbands = Family." It describes a clan of college-educated single mothers, all of whom admitted how they wanted to "make decisions about their kids, from when they are excused from the table to where they go to school, and how hard it would be to share that authority."
But our equivocation about paternity is finally untenable. Out-of-wedlock birth rates in the U.S. are now 38%; among African-Americans the figure is 70%. Fathers of children living with single mothers are far less involved with their children than are married fathers; about a third of all children in single-mother families have not seen their father in the previous year. Yet decades of social science have made it clear: Children who grow up without their fathers experience more poverty, have more problems at school, more trouble with the law -- and more single motherhood in the next generation.
In recent years, medical science has also raised doubts about our frequent desire to wish fathers away. Every week, it seems, science confirms just how much genes matter. Everything from eye color, to propensity to high cholesterol, to a rotten disposition, to talent at math or tennis is encoded, to some degree, in the genetic material passed on from our two biological parents.
In Canada, donor children have brought a class-action suit demanding the same right to know their parentage that adoptive children there already have. For the same reason, Norway, the Netherlands and New Zealand have all banned donor anonymity, and Britain now requires donors to agree to be contacted when their children reach 18; unsurprisingly the country's sperm banks are now as depressed as its financial institutions. In the U.S., some sperm banks have begun to ask donors to volunteer to be identified to their children when they reach adulthood. Some agree; most do not.
And why would they agree? They know that even if fathers make good politics, they make dispensable parents.