Thursday, January 18, 2001

Does paying a fee buy you a baby?

No sooner has Ally McBeal and her baby faded from the front page than another adoption story takes its place, this one considerably less warm and fuzzy. Those of us who have jumped through the adoption hoops may wonder how celebs like Calista Flockhart get babies so easily, and gossip about how much money must have changed hands, but that's never part of the media's take. But this latest tale has even nice-guy Matt Lauer from the Today show talking about baby-selling.

It's certainly a tale that brings "buyer, beware" to mind. An Internet adoption broker matched a pair of twins with a California couple, for a $6,000 fee. Then--because the birthmother changed her mind? because they hadn't made enough money? because they could?--the broker placed the children with a couple from Wales. Since California gives birthparents 90 days to change their mind, the birthmother was able to take the kids from couple one on the pretext of a closure visit, deliver them unto couple two, and presumably pocket some of the $12,000 that changed hands.

Not wanting to wait 90 days--they'd sure seen the pitfalls of that--the Welsh couple hightailed it to Arkansas, which waives any wait, and obtained a legal adoption. They then headed home, way off in Great Britain, leaving the California couple crying foul and threatening lawsuits.

This is the sort of thing that makes adoption look bad, to be sure. But as we tsk about paying brokers, anybody who's gone through an international adoption will have to admit that they paid money they would not want Matt Lauer to look too closely at. We think of it in terms of paying for the service of being matched with a child, not paying for a child, and that's no doubt the trappings of this new situation, too. Unless you're adopting a child from foster care--and good luck doing that--money is going to change hands somewhere. Whether you pay a birthmother's pregnancy and birth expenses or make large donations to foreign orphanages, the process costs money, and has no guarantees. If you were indeed paying money in exchange for a child, you'd at least have some recourse. But since we don't do that, adoptive parents are pretty much acting on good faith and prayers.

So it's hard to feel too sorry for the California parents, who may have been moving toward adoption but presumably knew that the birthmother had a right to restake her claim. They may be unhappy that she did so, and unhappy that she misrepresented why she was taking the children, and unhappy that she turned around and gave them to somebody else, but it's hard to believe they have any legal resource. It's not like someone stole their TV set. They did not yet have a legal right to those babies, and the person who did exercised hers.

And at the same time, it's hard to feel too good about the Welsh couple, who knew about the Californians, fled from any chance of contact with them, arranged what can only be thought of as an inappropriately expeditious adoption, and left the country. The mother has been quoted as saying "It may not be moral, but it's legal," and she's right--it's not moral. What kind of start is that for a forever family? If you can get away with it, it's okay?

And it's certainly uncomfortable to make a justification for the birthmother and agency, although they are probably the ones most within their rights here. The birthmother, under the laws involved, had the right to choose her babies' birthparents. And if the broker was indeed paid not for the specific child but for matching the parents and birthparents, then she certainly had a right to collect again if the first match went bad. It's a service, don't you know. If you pay a matchmaker and you have a bad date, you don't get your bucks back.

All of which is why so many people find international adoption to be so appealing. No birthparents to return, no laws sympathetic to them, and a world between you and your baby's past. There may be bumps along the way, but chances are, if you get those children home, you're going to keep them. Hey, it works for the Welsh.

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