Octuplet Mom, Barry Bonds to Princess Diana: People and Events That Changed History

From "Octomom" to Monica Lewinsky, who becomes a cultural touchstone?

Feb. 17, 2008 — -- The curious case of Nadya Suleman and her miraculous delivery of octuplets is unfolding in the sort of dramatic fashion that suggests this story is more than just passing fodder for the daytime talk shows.

As suspicion around the octuplets' in vitro conception grows, Suleman's story bears all the characteristics of an event that alters history. Like Terry Schiavo's right to die case and the Columbine massacre that shook parents' faith in school safety, the Suleman babies have sparked a dialogue, becoming as much cultural conversation as personal story.

News last month that an unnamed California woman had for the second time ever given birth to eight living babies at once had all the makings of a TV movie. It was a feel good, human interest story that celebrated the marvels of modern medicine and tapped into a national obsession with multiple births celebrated in pop culture like on the reality show "John and Kate Plus Eight."

But shortly after people got over the initial shock, they started asking questions. At first the questions were of the small and head-scratching variety. But during the last three weeks -- as more has been learned about Suleman's personal life (she is unmarried and has six other children reportedly being raised by her parents) and her doctor, who reportedly transplanted seven embryos into another California woman currently pregnant with quadruplets -- the questions have become bigger.

The case raises a host of important questions like: Should doctors be allowed to implant a woman with eight embryos? And should a bankrupt state pick up $2.5 million in hospital bills for the woman if she has no money?

Those questions may very well be the sparks that lead to a national debate about privacy, reproductive health and government regulation.

Suleman has yet to make the switch from buzzy story of the month to significant story that influences the collective consciousness and national policy, but she appears on the right track.

News makes the jump to history not when it gets old, but when it enters the public consciousness and generates opinion, possibly even change.

The individuals in the list that follows all started out as chatter around the water cooler but became cultural landmarks during the last 25 years.

Ryan White

In the early 1980s, AIDS was a little understood and largely reviled disease that had predominantly afflicted the gay community.

When Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac, contracted HIV through a contaminated blood transfusion and was expelled from his middle school, the face of the disease and the country's reaction changed in a matter of months.

In June 1985, White was expelled from his Indiana middle school. It was more than a year, several court cases and public relations blitz later before the teenager was readmitted.

White's story placed a spotlight on an epidemic President Reagan and others had chosen largely to ignore, and it forced the public to acknowledge the scope of the disease and better understand what had caused it to spread.

White's story led to increased media attention -- news stories about AIDS doubled between 1985 and 1987 -- and led to other well-known people going public about their own infections.

In August 1990, four months after Ryan died at age 18, Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, the largest federally funded program to provide care for people living with HIV/AIDS.

The program, which provides care for about 500,000 people, was last reauthorized by President Bush in 2006.

Rodney King

"Can we all get along?" became a punch line of the 1990s, but the violence that preceded Rodney King's famous appeal was no laughing matter.

America's worst race riots since the 1970s were sparked by the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers caught on tape excessively beating King, a black man, after a high-speed chase in 1991.

A weeklong riot broke out in Los Angeles in April 1992 after the verdict, leading to looting, arson, an estimated $1 billion in damages and the deaths of 53 people.

The riots, sparked by the case but fueled by long simmering grievances about the black community's high rate of unemployment and claims of police brutality and racial profiling, were so linked to King that they are often still called the Rodney King riots.

Even before the verdict and riots that followed, the case had become a cause celebre. Nowadays, "viral" would be the description of the rapid dissemination of the grainy home video of the beating caught by bystander George Holiday.

The video was picked up by news outlets across the country and around the world.

On the third day of the riots, King made his legendary appeal: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? … It's just not right. It's not right."

In the aftermath of the riots politicians and civic leaders worked to improve the economy in the depressed areas of Los Angeles. Police across the country were given sensitivity training, leading to a still ongoing debate about the racial profiling of suspects.

Christopher Reeve

Stem cell research was for many Americans a mix of science fiction, esoteric jargon and controversy, until an actor famous for his strength was laid low by paralysis.

Christopher Reeve, best known for playing the title role in the "Superman" franchise of films, used his celebrity to promote research into treatments that could potentially save lives or diminish the effects of paralysis.

Reeve was paralyzed when he was thrown from a horse during a jumping competition in 1995 and died in 2004 at age 54.

"You look out the window, and you can't believe where you are," Reeve told ABC's Barbara Walters soon after the accident that left him unable to walk. "And the thought that keeps going through your mind is, 'This can't be my life. There's been a mistake.'"

But despair turned into determination, and Reeve turned his desire to walk into his new life's work.

Reeve became America's leading advocate for spinal cord injury research, raising money, writing books, testifying before Congress and giving motivational speeches all over the country.

"He has been our champion. If you think of spinal injuries you automatically conjure up a picture of Christopher Reeve," Paul Smith, executive director of the Spinal Injuries Association in England, told The Associated Press in 2004.

Reeve became a strong believer and advocate for embryonic stem cell research, a controversial field of medicine that uses the cells of discarded embryos to create treatments.

In the Bush administration, Reeve found opposition to embryonic stem cell research and President Bush banned the use of federal funds for the research. The controversy became a major platform of the 2004 presidential election.

President Obama has pledged to overturn the Bush administration ban.

Diana, Princess of Wales

For virtually her entire adult life, Princess Diana lived in front of the cameras.

A figure of constant media attention, from the moment she married Prince Charles in 1981 through the couple's divorce 14 years later, Diana was hounded by the press and paparazzi.

Her 1997 death in a car crash while being chased by photographers on motorcycles altered the public's perception of the paparazzi but did not diminish its appetite for salacious images of well-known people.

Known as "the people's princess," she put a fresh and compassionate face on the British monarchy. She empathized with the poor and with victims of AIDS and land mines and spoke openly about the problems in her marriage.

An inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, her boyfriend at the time, determined that the accident was a result of the driver being drunk and exceeding the speed limit as paparazzi pursued them.

Diana's death did not just change the way people felt about the press; it also changed the way they thought about the British royal family.

Queen Elizabeth II, Diana's one-time mother-in-law, took five days to address the nation, a decision that was pilloried in the British and international press.

Five days after Diana's death, the queen addressed the nation. The next day was Diana's funeral -- the long solemn march to Westminster Abbey through the heart of London. The queen bowed her head as the procession passed Buckingham Palace.

"That was a very symbolic moment, because the queen only ever bowed her head for heads of state," biographer Tina Brown told ABC's "Nightline" last year. "[It] was a huge personal recognition of hers, that she must do this thing, which, for her, went against the grain -- acknowledge that Diana's death was commensurate to the death of a head of state."

Monica Lewinsky

The private lives of presidents were historically just that -- private.

The "inappropriate relationship" President Clinton admitted to having with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1996 marred his presidency with an impeachment trial and forever opened the doors on the private lives of politicians.

A sexual relationship, which in previous decades would have been ignored by the media and only whispered about by Washington insiders, preoccupied the country in the last months of Clinton's presidency.

Lewinsky, 23 at the time of the affair, was forced into the national spotlight, as Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel hired to investigate Whitewater, expanded his investigation into whether the president had perjured himself when asked about the relationship while giving testimony to the grand jury.

Under oath Clinton denied having "a sexual relationship" with Lewinsky, and in a famous denial during a televised news conference in 1998 said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Clinton later recanted that denial, leading to an impeachment by the House of Representatives, but an acquittal in the Senate.

Lewinsky, now 34, has maintained a low profile since the scandal. Her name, however, will forever be linked with sexual scandal.

In the decade since, a number of high profile politicians have been embroiled in headline-making sex scandals, forcing the news media to sate the public's desire for the salacious details about their leaders' personal lives.

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris

At 11:10 a.m. April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold arrived at Columbine High School in the suburban town of Columbine, Colo., armed with two shotguns and two pistols. The two entered the school and opened fire; three hours later 15 people were dead.

The shooting was the deadliest to take place in a high school in American history and the name "Columbine" entered the lexicon as a synonym for young people who turn weapons on their fellow students.

The massacre sparked a series of debates that reverberated in the culture from the halls of Congress to the aisles of movie theaters in films like Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and Gus van Sant's "Elephant."

What drove Klebold, 18, and Harris, 17, to kill 15 people -- including themselves -- and injure an additional 24 sparked a nationwide conversation.

The shootings made many Americans realize the schools they sent their children to every day were not as safe as they seemed, leading to a new movement in school safety.

Everything about the shootings and shooters was dissected in the press, launching a series of debates on topics ranging from gun control to the influence of violent movies and music on young people.

Teri Schiavo

If Roe vs. Wade sparked a national debate about when life begins, the case of Terri Schiavo ignited a countrywide conversation about when it should end.

The case of a brain-dead woman on life support for 15 years and the fight between her husband and parents over whether to keep her on a feeding tube began in a Florida hospital room in 1990 and found its way to the floor of the Congress in 2005.

Eight years after his wife's heart attack in 1990, Michael Schiavo petitioned to remove her feeding tube.

After seven years of wrangling in court, the Florida government and later the federal government passed laws that sought to overturn court orders to remove her feeding tube.

The case became a national cause celebre when Congress held a special session in March 2005 and passed a bill calling for a federal review of her case. President Bush cut short a vacation to return to Washington to sign the bill.

An ABC News poll from that time found that Americans broadly and strongly disapproved of federal intervention in the case, with sizable majorities saying Congress was overstepping its bounds for political gain.

The public, by 63 percent to 28 percent, supported the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, and by a 25-point margin opposed the law mandating federal review of her case.

A local court's decision to pull Schiavo's feeding tube was implemented later that March and Schiavo died of dehydration.

Barry Bonds

The recent admission by New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez that he used steroids was the most recent in a series of reports that some of America's best-known and well-paid ballplayers had used performance-enhancing drugs.

No player, however, embodied America's realization that its athletic heroes were using steroids, like Barry Bonds, 44.

Since 2003, Bonds, who holds Major League Baseball's all-time record for most career home runs, has been under investigation for alleged involvement in a steroids ring conducted out of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative.

He was indicted in 2007 for alleged perjury and obstruction of justice for the testimony he gave before a grand jury.

Bonds testified in 2003 that he took two substances, which he referred to as the "cream" and the "clear," according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which obtained transcripts of Bonds' testimony. Bonds said he believed the substances were flaxseed oil and balm.

Bonds broke Hank Aaron's career home-run record in 2007 to considerable skepticism in the stands and sparked a debate about whether his record should be recorded with an asterisk given the taint of steroids use.

In 2005, in the wake of the BALCO and Bonds scandals, Major League Baseball instituted a steroids policy that included mandatory drug testing and suspensions for players testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

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