The California Octuplets a Mom's Controversial Choice

updated 02/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

From a surgical standpoint, it was nothing short of stupendous. At 10:43 a.m. on Jan. 26, a 52-member medical team at Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Center in California stood ready to deliver septuplets by C-section, with each infant—designated Babies A through G—assigned to nurses, doctors and surgical assistants. Four minutes into the rapid-fire delivery, recalls Dr. Veena Manchanda, there was a surprise: one more baby hiding behind the ribs. "Are you sure?" shouted the mother, Nadya Suleman, 33, who'd received an epidural and was conscious. "We're going to have one more!" Welcome, Baby H.

With that, at 10:48 a.m., Kaiser's medical team became only the second in U.S. history to deliver octuplets—and an ecstatic Suleman became the focal point of an intense national debate about whether doctors have an ethical responsibility to safeguard against what might be considered "extreme" multiple births, which can imperil both mother and babies. Within a week of delivering, Suleman was in stable condition and all eight babies were doing as well as or better than expected, drinking donated breast milk and breathing on their own. But the furor continued to swirl, stoked by news that Suleman is a recently divorced single mom who already has six children ranging in age from 2 to 7, two of them 2-year-old twins and one of them autistic.

After the births, the hospital confirmed that Suleman had been impregnated at a different facility through in vitro fertilization. "Her dad and I have told her that she has six beautiful children, why do you want more, we can't understand," her mother, Angela Suleman, told PEOPLE. "She is a good person but a little misguided." The situation has lit up mommy chatboards, stirred debate among medical ethicists and fertility doctors—and become the talk of Whittier, where Nadya lives. "It's just insane," says Amy Longstreth, 20, a neighbor on the same quiet cul-de-sac. "How on earth can she do it?" But Allison Frickert, who went to Cal State Fullerton with Suleman, says it's simple: She wants "more children to love."

Angela Suleman sees it less glowingly. An only child, Nadya "was always upset about not having brothers and sisters," Angela says. "She's obsessed." Reportedly suffering from fertility problems, Nadya worked as a psychiatric technician until she was injured on the job; she then got a college degree in child and adolescent development and started a family through IVF. Indeed, Yolanda Novak, 49, who says she was hired to help care for Suleman's autistic son a few years ago, recalls Suleman telling her: "I plan to have 12 kids." All 14 of Suleman's children, Angela told the Los Angeles Times, involved the same sperm donor (not her ex-husband, according to Angela, who says her daughter was married for "a couple of years"). This time, Angela said, she used up the last of her remaining frozen embryos in an attempt to have "just one more girl."

In the U.S., fertility doctors frown upon transferring more than two embryos during an IVF cycle in women under 35. Though Suleman authorized Kaiser to say she'd been impregnated through IVF, she offered no details about where it was done or how many embryos were transferred. Her mother says some of them split. At Kaiser, which said it played no role in her impregnation, Dr. Harold Henry, her perinatologist, said that she'd been advised of both the risks of her pregnancy and her options, among them aborting some of the fetuses.

Now Suleman must care for eight infants, expected to be released from the hospital next month. At present she and her six older kids share a three-bedroom bungalow with her mom and dad, Ed Doud, recently back from Iraq, where he reportedly worked as a contractor. It's unclear if Suleman currently has a job; her mother filed for bankruptcy last March (but never followed through). Ed told reporters in his Whittier driveway, "We have a huge house, not here." But if they want to benefit from the movie and book offers that Suleman's new representative says are pouring in, this family won't disappear.

As for child care, her mom and a nanny handle much of it now. But Angela says, "I'll be gone," when her daughter returns home. "She's a good mother, she really is," Angela says. "She has to learn to take care of her children."

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