Lolita Buckner Inniss (Cleveland-Marshall, Ain’t I a Feminist Legal Scholar, Too?, Visiting Prof at Pace Law School) and I have posted to SSRN our essay, Multiple Anxieties: Breaching Race, Class and Gender Norms With Assisted Reproduction. The essay is about is about misplaced attention on women’s bodies. Focusing on Nadya Suleman, the California woman who gave birth to octuplets in January, we explore socio-legal anxieties about gender, race, class and geography. To theorize about the increasing availability of reproductive technology is to uncover a deep ambivalence about “choice” as it applies to women and their bodies.
The public reacted strongly and negatively to the Suleman’s story. How could anyone have octuplets? And how could anyone have octuplets when they already have six other children? “She must be crazy,” the internet commentators suggested.
There is a way in which Suleman is being read as kind of “collector” or “hoarder” of children, the way some people hoard animals. Animal hoarding is characterized (here) by The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium by the presence of these criteria:
- More than the typical number of companion animals
- Inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness, and death
- Denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household, and human occupants of the dwelling
As I read the negative criticism of Suleman, the outcry comes not only from the fact she has “more than the typical number” of children, but also that she seems to lack an independent (i.e., non-government) source of financial support for the children’s “nutrition, sanitation, shelter” and medical care. In interviews, Suleman presents as a calm and “beatific” presence, as if she is in some kind of denial about her ability to care for the children.
In our essay (full version here) Professor Inniss and I attempt to unpack the “multiple anxieties” that Suleman’s story has exposed. Some of those anxieties are about race and class. If a wealthy person has “more than the typical number” of children (or companion animals, for that matter) how likely are they to be read as a (crazy) hoarder? Not very likely, is my guess. With both children and companion animals, the wealthy can outsource the work to paid caretakers. The wealthy are more likely to live in larger residences. This in turn reducing the immediate negative impact of the presence of many children (or animals) on other occupants of the dwelling. Plus the wealthy have permission to be “eccentric.” Middle-class and poor people who exhibit the same behaviors are “crazy.”
I do not wish to suggest that having 14 children or companion animals is normatively good or even wise. But I do think we should be explicit about the biases that we bring to a determination of some idealized, “typical” (read: acceptable) number of children or animals.