What are Octuplets?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Octuplets are, as the name implies, eight offspring from a single pregnancy. This is not at all uncommon in the animal world and there are many records of dogs, rats, shrews, mice and naked mole rats that can have this many babies at one time. In humans, there is no record of natural conception that results in creating eight babies. Generally, the only way octuplets would be produced is through implantation of a number of fertilized eggs into the uterus, and where at least eight of them implant into the uterus wall and survive to birth. This scenario happens very rarely.

Octuplets are the presence of 8 offspring from a single pregnancy.
Octuplets are the presence of 8 offspring from a single pregnancy.

In fact, as of the late of 2000s there is only one surviving group of octuplets. Several other groups have been born, but some of the children were born dead or did not live more than a few days. In 2009, Nadya Suleman changed that, becoming the mother of eight babies at once, who against the odds, have grown and thrived.

A woman who is pregnant with octuplets faces considerable health risks.
A woman who is pregnant with octuplets faces considerable health risks.

There are many who criticize Suleman and her fertility doctor for her choice to implant so many fertilized eggs at one time. From simply a health perspective, there are strong risks to the mother and the fetuses. Attempting to carry this many children at once represents huge potential for complications. Of necessity, almost all higher order multiple births end up being premature, with the infants usually weighing less than a pound. In this weakened and vulnerable state, lungs are not properly developed, birth defects are twice as likely, and the risk of infection can be great.

Risk extends to any mother of octuplets. The human uterus was not built to carry so many children at once. There is good reason why most kids are single, twins or triplets. The uterus distends and there exists risk of rupture or severe complications during and after labor. Though some women are fortunate to survive this without problems, not all do, and some people believe that the publicity regarding higher order births, as for example Suleman’s octuplets, minimizes potential danger to mother and babies.

In fact, in many fertility clinic environments, when fertilized egg implantation is used, most women who find themselves pregnant with octuplets would be counseled to receive selective abortion. For many women such counsel is distasteful, and yet it is a challenging decision because not reducing fetuses could result in losing all of them. There is much ethical discussion about the appropriateness of implantation of more fertilized eggs than a woman could possibly naturally carry, and there are few conclusions on a specific number of eggs that seems ethically appropriate. This is especially evidenced by Suleman’s example.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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