A few weeks ago, I chanced to pick up a novel that I had read at school: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. It was a best-seller when published and won for the author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. In 2004, it hit the stands again as a best-seller when it was recommended by Oprah’s Book Club.

It chronicles the life of a farming family through turbulent times, and the complex relationships within the community of farmers. The character I remember best is O-lan, the wife of Wang Lung. She was a kitchen-slave in a rich man’s house when Wang Lung married her.

O-lan bore Wang Lung several children. A “man child" was welcome, but a girl’s arrival caused great apprehension, as people believed that a girl would bring misfortune. In many families, daughters were sold in times of hardship. O-lan herself thought it right to end the life of her second daughter.

O-lan is a brave woman and shows strength and pride during her first pregnancy. As she is working in the field with her husband, she goes into labour. She walks into the house and delivers the baby all by herself. These simple village folk leave childbirth to the care of Mother Nature. There is no insemination, no Lamaze, no epidural and no Caesarean section.

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Across the Pacific, in the US, the picture is different. Instead of O-lan, read Nadya Suleman, who became famous overnight when she gave birth to the world’s longest-surviving octuplets in a Los Angeles hospital in January. The doctors had used in vitro fertilization and then Caesarean section. She already had six children, bringing the total to 14.

America was agog at the news. Octomom, as the media dubbed her, figured in celebrity channels and was chased by the paparazzi.

The celebrity status did not last. Frenzy turned into fury as people came to know that Suleman was a jobless woman living on public money. She had separated from her husband. She already had six children aged 2 to 7, all of them test tube babies. The medical ethics behind the procedure came up for censure. More serious objections were voiced when leading TV channels came forward to produce documentaries on Suleman.

Paul Jackson, a noted British television producer and former director at the BBC, has planned a documentary for Channel 4 “to find out what makes Nadya Suleman tick". His company will pay the children $125,000 (Rs60.38 lakh). Of this 15% will go into a fund that would be released to the children when they turn 18. The mother will get an equal amount.

Suleman was accused of commercially exploiting the children. If this had happened a century ago, the Barnum circus would have taken the octuplets for exhibition around the country to whet people’s appetite for the bizarre. Now the media is doing the job.

Meanwhile, a new approach to pregnancy and childbirth emerged in China with the rise of the new republic and the official adoption of a “family planning policy". In the 1980s, China’s one-child-only law was stringently enforced; there were instances of forced abortion, sterilization and infanticide, very much like the alleged excesses of the emergency in India. It is estimated that over 250 million births were prevented up to 2000. Wikipedia cites a study by an American university which concluded that the policy was “remarkably effective".

In recent years, however, people have begun to feel that the policy has overshot the mark. The one-child rule has led to a skewed demographic pattern and needs to be rolled back. Last month, the city of Shanghai openly invited eligible couples to have a second child. Like Singapore and Hong Kong, the city expressed concern about its aging population and falling birth rate. Many young Chinese now have to look after their two parents and up to four grandparents. The new campaign still highlights the one-child policy, but at the same time draws attention to the categories of couples exempted from the rule: if they are rural residents, if their first child is a daughter, if the first child is unhealthy, if a man marries a divorcee who has no issue, if each of the parents is an only child, or if the couple belongs to specified ethnic groups.

Critics of the policy continue to advocate adoption of alternative methods like delay and spacing of births. The human rights angle cannot be ignored. Patti Waldmeir, in a 25 July Financial Times report, says “China’s decades-old one-child policy, though relaxed in some areas, remains a significant intrusion into private life."

V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com