Making Rabbits Blush

Published on January 28th, 2011

After writing about the extremely large (by contemporary standards) and still growing brood of the polygamist family on TLC’s “Sister Wives,” I would be remiss not to give equal time to the Duggar family, also of TLC fame. “Don’t Try This at Home.”

That should be the disclaimer at the beginning and end of “19 Kids and Counting” (renamed from the original program, “14 Children and Pregnant Again,” as more babies were produced), the reality show about the Duggars, the Arkansas couple whose fecundity would make even rabbits and rats blush. Apparently back when Hillary Clinton included the line, “It takes a village to raise a child,” in a speech, the Duggars thought they had to produce the village.

If you’re not familiar with Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, and their 19 progeny, the quick summary (from their Web site) is this: After a miscarriage four years into their marriage, they talked with a “Christian medical doctor” and read “the fine print in the contraceptives package.” Their story continues that they learned that “while taking the pill you can get pregnant and then miscarry,” which then led to the revelation that “their selfish actions had taken the life of their child” and then the decision to never use birth control – apparently in any form – ever again. (Note: According to Planned Parenthood, “There is no 100-percent effective birth control for people who have vaginal intercourse. But the pill comes close. Fewer than one of 100 women a year who use the pill correctly – every day – will get pregnant. About 8 out of 100 will become pregnant if they don’t use the pill correctly, every day.”)

Undoubtedly grief can lead to many things, but this may be a unique example of it leading to out-of-control breeding. Michelle Duggar has been in a state of pregnancy for the majority of her married life. Her choices are in stark contrast to established science on reproduction. Margaret Sanger, an early advocate for family planning, spent years “gathering the scientific evidence that demonstrated that birth control was beneficial, indeed a necessity, for human betterment because it enabled the survival of women and children,” according to her grandson, Alexander Sanger, who has continued her important work.

In “Beyond Choice, Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century,” he has written eloquently about reproductive issues and addresses the importance of spacing between births: Women face huge risks to their health from pregnancy and childbirth. The biggest killer of women over time has been childbirth. When women die, their children are more likely to die as well. Women have evolved to minimize these risks by planning and spacing their children and by limiting the number of children they bear. In simplest terms for today, allowing space between the births of children provides the mother time to recover from pregnancy and childbirth, with all its related hormonal and physical changes. For children, it allows for sufficient time to be devoted to their nurturing.

Apparently this information is lost on the Duggars, but science often is at odds with fundamentalist thinking. Michelle Duggar was 43 at her last pregnancy, which already put her in a high-risk category. In addition – while I’m no medical expert – I’d venture to guess that years of birthing babies may have helped create the health crisis with both the mother and her most recent offspring, which was delivered only 25 weeks into the pregnancy with a variety of very serious problems, necessitating an extended hospital stay. Mother Duggar had preeclampsia, a life-threatening condition that only occurs during pregnancy or post-pregnancy.

According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, preeclampsia is “most often characterized by a rapid rise in blood pressure that can lead to seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and death of the mother and/or baby.” Interestingly, while the Duggars eschew the science that has allowed for safe family planning, they most certainly take full advantage of other medical advances. The new season of the show kicked off this month, and reports I read said the prolific baby maker is shown evaluating a pregnancy test. While Michelle apparently is not yet pregnant, it’s hard to believe this couple, with its track record, won’t “shoot for 20.”

Obviously neither parent has enough sense to cease compromising the health of the mother or future child, or, children, if they try to run out the biological clock. Hopefully early menopause will shut down the baby factory soon. We as a society are loathe to criticize personal choices – particularly those surrounding the “right” to have children – but it’s critically important to call out bad behavior. And once people place themselves front and center in the public eye, they’re fair game for criticism.

Beyond the health benefits that would have directly accrued to the Duggar family if they had engaged in family planning, there are numerous other reasons why having so many kids is just plain ill-conceived in this day and age. The planet is overpopulated, and there’s lots of readily available information to support this. I know that many people just roll their eyes when they hear this, but by numerous measures, that’s just the fact. There are more people than ever before living on the planet. From about 500 million people in the world in the mid-17th century, fast forward to now, and the number is closing in on 7 billion, a large portion living in poverty and all depleting natural resources. The vast human population contributes to a complex scenario in which debates rage about economics, politics, the environment and the higher consumption of Western societies, among other factors, but the bottom line is that we have the resources and knowledge to live sustainably, which means a smaller worldwide population.

The Duggar model is unsustainable and morally indefensible for a Westernized family in an overpopulated world. Personal choices do matter and do have an impact on the broader social fabric, particularly, in this case with the Duggar’s very public image, which puts forth their model as an acceptable lifestyle choice. There’s a fair amount of negative commentary in looking through online reader comments about stories on the Duggars, as well as a surprising number of positive comments. A common thread seems to be that as long as the family is not on public assistance, then their large breeding choices don’t matter – as though that were the only standard for having children.

But there is no “Voice of America” – no popular pundit – speaking out on this one, perhaps, again, this goes back to the reluctance to tread on personal reproductive choices. So with no popular pundit to call out the moral hazard of the Duggar story, it stands as a very quirky lifestyle choice, yet one that’s deemed acceptable, somehow representing American individualism, rather than the extreme that it is.

Now the eldest child of the Duggars and his wife seem to be in full production mode, with child #2 expected on the heels of a miscarriage. Moral hazard definitely is in play. This young couple appears to be ignoring the importance of spacing as well – their other child is just over a year old. As well, they seem be shunning birth control, with the eldest Duggar joking about “having 25.” (See the article, “Excessive Fecundity for Publicity and Profit,” CAPS newsletter, spring 2009, about the numerical impacts of future generations of Duggars making similar reproductive choices to that of Michelle and Jim Bob.) The couple also seems fully prepared to carry on in the tradition of Jim Bob and Michelle, right down to creating their own reality TV personas.

While it might be quaint to think of the Duggars as a quirky, oddball anomaly, think again. There’s also the Gil and Kelly Jo Bates family in Tennessee, who have churned out 18 kids in 23 years – and, perhaps not surprisingly, are pals with the Duggars, even making an appearance on their reality show. While this couple supposedly isn’t interested in the limelight, they have made their appearances on national TV, with anchors gushing as they peddle this as a family values feature. Then there are the Gosselins with their eight children and Nadya Suleman with her 14 children. Of course, these are stories not about failure to practice birth control, but examples of lapsed medical ethics. I’d suggest all media coverage of any of these folks needs to have the disclaimer I suggested for the Duggar’s show: Don’t Try this at Home!

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