Baby Selling

Before visiting Guatemala a few weeks ago, I read this travel advisory:

In 2007 particularly virulent rumors of child stealing and of murder for organ harvesting have been reported in several different areas of Guatemala frequented by American tourists.   This year numerous Guatemalan citizens have been lynched for suspicion of child stealing.

Saturday the Post said

A year after Guatemala’s emergence as the second-largest foreign source of babies for adoption to the United States, a new push by the Guatemalan government to wrest control of the process from private agencies has stirred an emotional backlash from thousands of prospective adoptive parents in the United States. …

Guatemala’s solicitor general, Mario Gordillo, … worries that thousands of desperately poor Guatemalan women are being induced to conceive children for adoption by private brokers offering as much as $3,000 a baby.

"Guatemala has converted into a baby-producing nation," Gordillo said at his office in Guatemala City. "Our children come into this world to be products for sale. . . . It’s as if they were a car. What model is it? And who wants to buy it?"   The debate raging in Guatemala echoes previous controversies that have led to the suspension of adoptions from Romania to Cambodia. …

On top of the roughly $6,000 that adoptive parents pay U.S. agencies, many pay Guatemalan lawyers $20,000 to $30,000. Critics suggest that such sums are a huge markup over the actual cost of finding, caring for and processing the paperwork.  … Many lawyers contract with jaladores, Spanish for tuggers or touts, who fan across the countryside seeking women willing to relinquish their children. There is widespread suspicion that jaladores may be paying, pressuring or bamboozling women who would not otherwise choose to put up a child for adoption.

Payment is considered a particularly likely, and insidious, practice because if a woman gives in to temptation but then changes her mind before the adoption is complete, she or her relatives might hesitate to reclaim the child because they cannot pay back the jalador.  Manuel Manrique, UNICEF’s representative in Guatemala, … notes that it is common for the same woman to give up multiple infants for adoption.  "Why else would a woman have three successive children and put them all up for adoption?" he asked. "It’s as though with the first adoption, women are getting drawn into an adoption circuit."

This is amazingly sad.  It is in general a good thing if willing women are induced by money to have babies families want to adopt.  Not only do the woman and the family benefit, but the baby gets a life!  Positive externalities don’t get much larger than this.  We need lower, not higher, barriers to such exchange. 

To lower the lawyer’s cut, simplify the law and lower barriers to entry.  And why begrudge the mother $3000 when US agencies take a $6000 cut for "paperwork"? How does it help her to limit her options?  Do we really have good reasons to think mothers systematically misjudge such options? 

On my way to visit Tikal in Guatemala, my tour guide proudly noted how development agencies had helped the local village switch to producing art, rather than the usual exports.  It seemed such agencies valued art production well beyond the income it brings.  Their priorities, art over bananas over babies, are the opposite of mine. 

From an evolutionary psychology perspective this whole situation seems as strange as having to pay men to be sperm donors.   A genetically selfish tribe would want others to pay them to raise their children.

Added 4Dec: I agree that it is possible that mothers on average gain from being forbidden to sell their babies.  But clearly our default is not to limit a person’s options, so we need a substantial positive argument to overcome this default.  Surely each of these factors is not, by itself, enough to ban a choice:

  • Some people making this choice later regret it
  • Most people do not choose this option, when offered it
  • Many people disapprove of this choice and want it stopped
  • The people choosing are poor.
  • The people choosing are women.
  • The choice gains them money.

Are all these factors together enough?   If so, which factor combinations are enough?   Did I miss a factor important to this case? 

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