Sunday, February 15, 2009

Discussion about "the octuplets"

Questions about the mother giving birth to octuplets have come up in a course I am teaching. One student pondered whether it really had to do with economics or whether it was just a discussion of ethics. The ethical issues are clear—should any IVF service provider have implanted that many embryos. Some might take the discussion further and ask whether there should have been selective abortion. Others might take it in the direction of asking about the ethics of IVF. So, clearly there is an ethics discussion here.

However, the discussion is also economic. Obviously, the care of these children will be costly and at least partially publicly paid. Thus, there are externalities associated with the mother’s behavior. Everyone can relate to asking why our tax dollars should be used to fund her decision to have so many children if we do not agree with her decision.

Beyond this financial discussion, the issue is an even more fundamental economic question. Most of modern microeconomics is based on the idea of consumer sovereignty. This is the idea that people make the best decisions for themselves—even if many others in society disagree with their decisions. This may apply to all sorts of decisions—smoking, weight control, number of kids we have.

For the question of how many children a person or couple should have, the key is “does the behavior deserve regulation or manipulation of incentives?” For the octuplets, let’s ignore whether the physician who performed the IVF services was providing medical care ethically. Suppose a woman could know that she was going to bring eight children into the world at once and it did not require questionable IVF procedures, would we consider this a behavior that should be regulated. If so, an economist would ask “What other individual behaviors do we think we should regulate? Where do we draw the line on things that we will not regulate? What penalty would we set up?”

The skepticism for regulation should not be inferred to imply that an economist would be perfectly happy to see a woman with six children giving birth to eight. The skepticism is simply part of the underlying assumptions that economists bring to the world—people should be able to make good decisions for themselves and regulations should be adopted cautiously lest we end up with an overregulated society with government controlling more decisions than we’d prefer. An economist convinced of the need to provide some regulation for this type of behavior would focus on incentives rather than direct regulation and finding a way to not harm the children who happen to have been born to a parent who made an apparently less than optimal decision.


  1. Does anyone really think the fertility specialist or the mother of 6 plus 8 made any type of good decision?

  2. Good or not--it is a decision that was made based on their preferences. I don't agree with their preferences. I think we should find a way to impose strong incentives for people not to be able to realize such preferences. But, I firmly believe that we have to be careful before regulating too many behaviors.