Brass Tacks: Fertility Crackdown

This past June, we at Crisis published a funny and affecting essay by Mary Walsh (see her review, “Beads of Power,” in this issue on page 49), whose acquaintances couldn’t stop twitting her and her husband for daring to have six children. We gave Walsh’s essay a humorous title: “Wanted by the Fertility Police?’

Recently, however, the fertility police have been lead-weighting their nightsticks in a fashion that goes well beyond the humorous into the realm of the ominous. Not long after Walsh’s article appeared in Crisis, the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted 4-3 to uphold a lower-court judge’s order that a man who owes $25,000 in support for the nine children he has fathered cannot have any more children unless he shows that he is financially able to support all his offspring.

Should 34-year-old David Oakley disobey that order, a condition of probation imposed after his conviction for failure to pay child support, he faces eight years in prison. Oakley’s lawyer, Timothy T. Kay of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, is seeking a reconsideration and, if that fails, may petition the U.S. Supreme Court, whose new term opens this month, to overturn the state high court’s decision.

No, Oakley would not win an award for responsible fatherhood—although, according to news reports, several of his children and two of their four mothers continue to stand by him. He actually seems more pathetic than malicious: He was born in prison, has never known his own father, has been in and out of reform school and jail, and has found it hard to hold a steady job.

But his pecadillos pale by comparison to the enormity of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling. The court said, in essence, that the government has the power to set a numerical limit on the number of children someone may have, and a means test for deciding what that limit should be.

Carried to its logical extreme, the decision gives a green light to the idea of requiring couples to prove their fitness for parenthood before they could have a baby—an idea that is by no means unpopular. Furthermore, the court’s ruling not only punishes Oakley but obliges any woman who finds herself pregnant by him either to swallow some RU-486 or send him up the river for nearly a decade.

Amazingly, the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken Oakley’s side. To the ACLU, the concept of “reproductive freedom” usually means transporting teenagers across state lines to have abortions behind their parents’ backs. But this time, the organization is actually applying its civil-liberties principles consistently. Pray for the ACLU—although not in school (they don’t like that).

The Oakley decision is an extreme example of the disgust and derision with which the nice-people class greets the begetting and bearing of more than a civilized two, or at the outside three, little ones.

Take the knee-jerk condescension that is now a routine part of press coverage of multiple births. Leading the pack, a veritable box air-conditioner of sarcasm-dripping, is Scott Shuger, media columnist for the online magazine Slate, an affable fellow most of the time (he once edited an article of mine for the Washington Monthly) but the King Herod of the Internet when it comes to multiple pregnancies. When Bobbi McCaughey of Carlisle, Iowa, bore the first set of septuplets ever to survive labor in 1997, Shuger wrote a column titled “Diaper Rashness” that chided her and her husband, devout Baptists, for thanking God for the miracle of the babies’ delivery.

A year later, a Texas woman gave birth to octuplets. “Eight Is Too Much” sneered the title of Shuger’s column. His apoplexy climaxed this past July when a Saudi woman gave birth to another set of septuplets in Washington, D.C. Her crime: Her husband didn’t make much, and the couple had earlier lost to fatal illnesses their two previous children, ages six months and three years.

The title of Shuger’s column hit muddy bottom: “America’s Other Litter Problem.” In it, there were more digs at the religiosity (Muslim) of the parents, whom Shuger scolded as “selfish in the extreme” for producing more children than they or, he imagined, society could afford. Children raised in “broods,” he warned, are certain to have “psychological deficits.” (He apparently hasn’t seen the latest photos of the McCaughey brood—seven high-spirited toddlers cavorting at Walt Disney World—or of the good-looking Pisner quintuplets of Olney, Maryland, who have all just started college.)

I was raised in a brood myself, the oldest of five children, so like Mary Walsh, I have little patience for any of this. Growing up wasn’t easy: My two sisters—who shared a bedroom in a house that seemed huge back then but tiny to the two-child family that later bought it from my parents—fought constantly. My harried mother, I think, sometimes wished she’d married that Yalie who’d dated her in college rather than my father, a struggling trial lawyer who never stopped worrying about how he would support his family on his violently fluctuating income.

But I learned from life with my numerous siblings that blood is not only thicker than water; it is thicker than the sentimental—and in the end deadly—slush from the pundits to the effect that limiting the number of your children will ensure them a perfect childhood and you a perfect life. I’ll take that Wisconsin ne’er-do-well David Oakley any day over the purse-lipped fertility police.

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