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Many at One Time, Unique for All Time

ve8QAd   |   May 22, 2015

From the moment the sperm unites with the ready egg until the very last breath, each person who enters the world is unlike any other to come before or after.

And that’s true even if two or four or even more babies enter the world from one womb at one time.

McCaugheys-16
The McCaugheys on their 16th birthday. Photo: Des Moines Register.

Americans have long been fascinated by multiple births. I’ve especially enjoyed following the McCaughey (“McCoy”) septuplets, born November 1997 in Iowa. Imagine managing diapers for seven babies at once! They’re not in diapers anymore, of course. Let’s catch up with them and explore the joys and challenges of multiples.

In 1934, decades before fertility drugs, five identical baby girls were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne near Ontario, Canada. A media and tourist frenzy over the Dionne Quints erupted. The government took guardianship when the girls were four months old, and from then until they were nine they lived in Quintland, a hospital built just for them and their caretakers across the road from their parents’ home. Three times a day they went out to play so long lines of tourists could gawk from behind a high wire fence. A savvy local gas station owner installed five pumps and named them Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie. The girls were treated not as individuals but as one unit having five parts, even by their own parents.

Growing up as a public novelty was so complex and troubling that when the McCaugheys welcomed their septuplets, the three Dionnes still living wrote a letter to the parents to both congratulate and warn them.

The four boys and three girls born to Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey were the first septuplets to survive infancy. Unlike Elzire Dionne, who thought she might be carrying twins but otherwise was as stunned as the rest of the world, the McCaugheys had undergone fertility treatments and ultrasound had confirmed the number.

In some ways Elzire and Oliva Dionne were lucky. They didn’t have to endure advice from doctors to undergo “selective reduction,” a sterile euphemism for killing some unborn babies so others have a better chance to survive. The McCaugheys declined the advice and for good reason. It would mean intentionally killing their own children. After the births, critics questioned the science that made it possible and wondered if the babies were medical accidents instead of blessings. In 2007, a story in the Baptist Bulletin recalled something Bobbi said in one of her earliest interviews: “Well, come to our house, and tell me which four I shouldn’t have had!”

Dionne_Palmolive
Manufacturers of goods from soap to corn syrup used the Dionne sisters to advertise their products.

Unlike the Dionnes, the McCaugheys wisely refused to put their children on perpetual display. By their 10th birthday, their parents limited media coverage to one annual catch-up interview.

Today the McCaughey septuplets—Kenny, Kelsey, Natalie, Brandon, Alexis, Nathan and Joel—are typical 17 year olds, about to finish their junior year of high school and looking to the future. All seven are members of the high school band and several are involved in sports. Some have steady dates. Because having a car means buying one themselves, some are saving up.

Kenny wrestles and plays the drums. Kelsey plays soccer and hopes for a career in cosmetology. Natalie wants to be a teacher. Brandon also wrestles and plans to join the military. Alexis, who has cerebral palsy, manages a cheer squad and hopes to be a teacher. She participates in pageants for special needs children and was the 2013 Teen Miss Dreams Made True. Nathan, the other septuplet with cerebral palsy, is interested in a career in science. Joel runs track and plays the trombone. All are thriving; Nathan and Alexis have undergone surgeries over the years but are doing well. Mikayla, the septuplets’ older sister, turned 19 in January.

Over three seasons of our TV program, Facing Life Head-On, we were privileged to meet the Stevens family of Cincinnati, who welcomed four babies at once. Like the McCaugheys, the Stevenses counted four separate blessings and declined killing some through abortion. You can view my interviews with the Stevenses before the babies were born, again after their birth, and for a final time when the children were four years old. There’s an extra surprise in the last episode!

Most parents don’t decide as the McCaugheys and Stevenses did. From 1991 to 2012, an estimated 3.5 million of the tiniest humans were created through the fertility treatment process. Half were discarded and hundreds of thousands more are currently in frozen storage or used in scientific experiments.

Joseph Stalin is credited with making this quote famous: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” It’s easy to become numb to statistics; who can envision millions and millions of anything? It’s easy to get caught up in the wonder of multiples, so many tiny humans at once. But whether multiples or singlets, whether allowed to live, discarded or aborted, every single human embryo is a unique individual. We rightly mourn the loss of 57 million babies to Roe vs. Wade, but we must not, under the weight of that horror, forget the precious babies who lose the selective reduction lottery or die in petri dishes.

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