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Ethicists, doctors debate multiple births


December 22, 1998
Web posted at: 10:40 p.m. EST (0340 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Last year it was seven babies. This year it's eight.

As the mother of the world's first known set of surviving octuplets was moved out of intensive care Tuesday, doctors and ethicists are raising more and more questions about the increase in multiple births.

The mother of the octuplets, Nkem Chukwu, is in stable condition at Houston's St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital after undergoing surgery Monday to stop internal bleeding.

All but one of the eight babies -- six girls and two boys -- remain on ventilator systems. All are in critical but stable condition, and doctors remained optimistic about their chances Tuesday, said Leonard Weisman, the doctor treating the newborns.

The mother had taken fertility drugs. When it was discovered she was carrying multiple fetuses, she was offered the opportunity to abort some of them, but she declined for "religious and personal" purposes, Weisman said.

"We've continued to support her decision and to care for the babies that are born," he said.

Professionals in the field of reproduction say fertility drugs can be difficult to control.

"There are a lot of physicians trying to deal with this problem and decrease the likelihood that this will happen," said Dr. Keith Eddleman of Mount Sinai-NYU Medical Center in New York. "The problem is the technology is not perfect. They can't control the number of children they have."

Ethicists say being pregnant with so many babies forces women to make difficult moral and ethical decisions.

"They have to choose between three conflicting values -- their own health, in having to carry so many fetuses; the health of their fetuses; and the moral values of whether or not you have to abort one or more of those fetuses," said Larry Gostin, of Georgetown University.

Doctors say the generally healthy McCaughey septuplets were the exception rather than the rule. Many premature babies, such as the Houston octuplets, are much smaller and face greater dangers.

"Many of these children are going to have profound handicaps throughout their lives -- both physical and mental handicaps," Gostin said.

Ethicists say the public needs stricter guidelines. But many reproductive experts say it's difficult to pass regulations to prevent this kind of pregnancy. They add that until fertility drugs are perfected, high-multiple pregnancies will sometimes be unavoidable -- and if a woman chooses not to abort some of the fetuses, there is nothing anyone can do.

Medical Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore contributed to this report.

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