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The Baby Trade

When Ok Chin was a child, her mother brought her to an orphanage. The family was poor, and her mother heard that the girl would get fed and clothed.  Ok Chin would get an education. Maybe if the family’s fortunes improved, she could rejoin her brothers and sisters.

What happened next was unexpected. Another little girl at the orphanage was scheduled for an international adoption when her birth family showed up suddenly and took that girl back home. But a family in the United States was waiting for their child. So the orphanage performed one of those swaps that figure in so many fairy tales. Ok Chin became Cha Jung Hee. Identification cards were changed, birthdates were amended, and photos exchanged. When Ok arrived in the United States, she tried to explain the situation to her new adoptive parents. But she only spoke Korean, and her adoptive family only spoke English.

The little girl’s memories gradually began to fade away. Only later, as Deann Borshay Liem explains in her must-see autobiographical documentary, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, did the discrepancy between the initial photo of Cha Jung Hee sent to her adoptive family and her own photo taken before she left Korea provide evidence of the deception. Fortunately, Deann Borshay Liem had a loving adoptive family, and – through considerable detective work – managed to reconnect with her birth family. But her story illustrates some of the challenges facing the international baby trade.

First of all, the global baby trade is a market. Adoptive families pay a lot of money – to the sending country, adoption agencies, and lawyers. For many years, South Korea was the leading sending country, and the hard currency it earned from international adoptions helped the country recover from the Korean War's devastation.

Like any market, the unscrupulous find plenty of ways to make money. A child-buying scandal that erupted in Cambodia about 10 years ago drew wide media coverage. The European Union pressured Romania to place a ban on international adoptions, largely as a result of a report to the European Parliament by Lady Emma Nicholson. "Impoverished families were coerced and deceived into giving up their children who were then effectively sold on to Western couples under the guise of international adoption," Nicholson argued in a 2004 Guardian article.

Guatemala, once the largest per-capita source of adopted children, sent one out of every 100 live births to families abroad. The government instituted a two-year moratorium on international adoptions in 2007 and found evidence that the rumors of baby-snatching were true. These abuses come on top of revelations that the army abducted at least 333 children during Guatemala's "dirty war," sometimes even killing the parents to deliver the children to government-run orphanages for foreign adoption.

The global adoption trade fluctuates not simply as a result of wars, natural disasters, and economic adversity. In 1990, even though by then a major developed economy, South Korea was still the largest sender country for U.S. adoptions. In South Korea, there has long been a stigma attached to children born out of wedlock or to ethnically mixed parents. In China, meanwhile, the one-child policy – and the cultural preference for male babies – pushed thousands of little girls into the baby trade and propelled China into the No. 1 spot for sending countries even as the Chinese economy expanded.

The baby market is subject to the same neocolonial distortions that affect other commodities. Imagine a couple from Vietnam visiting the United States to adopt a white baby because they want to give the child a more spiritually rich life and save it from an existence poisoned by Wii, reality TV, and KFC. With rare exceptions, it's the poor countries that supply babies to the rich countries.

Sometimes, the rich just swoop in and take from the poor. In Sierra Leone, after the widespread amputations that took place during the civil war, some staff of U.S. charities persuaded amputee parents to give up their amputee children for adoption "in a manner that seemed to combine aspects of bribery and kidnapping," writes Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker. After Haiti's earthquake, the New Life Children's Refuge attempted to transport 33 alleged orphans out of the country to place with American parents. Not only did the transfer qualify as smuggling, since the Baptist activists didn't acquire any documentation from the Haitian side, but one-third of the children weren't even orphans. One child thought she was going to a summer camp.

Legal scholar David Smolin prefers to speak of "child laundering," a process by which "the current intercountry adoption system frequently takes children illegally from birth parents, and then uses the official processes of the adoption and legal systems to 'launder' them as 'legally' adopted children." Smolin knows from personal experience. He and his wife adopted two adolescent girls from India only to discover that they'd been essentially stolen from their birth family.

For the most part we try to do everything possible to obscure the fact that international adoption is a market. Adoption agencies paint a pretty picture of children saved and adoptive families enriched. Much of this is true. The international adoption business has certainly saved children from poverty, stigmatization, and even death. It has created thousands of hybrid families that are just as happy, sad, and complicated as any other family. But it's still a business, which suffers from all the problems of a business (and then some).

Sometimes the commodity nature of the process becomes impossible to miss. Earlier this year, a Tennessee woman put her adopted 7-year-old unaccompanied on a plane back to Russia with a note that read "I no longer wish to parent this child" – just like he were a piece of defective merchandise that she could send back to the manufacturer.

Businessman Ted Turner recently proposed adding a new twist to the baby trade. Rather than pay families for their babies, he wants to do the opposite: pay them not to have babies. The global population is expected to peak around 10 billion people in 2050. More people will produce more carbon emissions, Turner argues, so an obvious solution is to control population increase the Chinese way: by adopting a one-child limit globally. Imposing such a rule would be neither popular nor feasible, so Turner proposes a market incentive system. By selling their fertility rights, poor families could profit by their decision not to breed. Turner's proposal sounds suspiciously like a modern eugenics program.

His proposal also comes at a time when close to half the world's population now lives in countries with fertility rates below replacement level, according to Nicholas Eberstadt in Foreign Affairs. The birth dearth in economically advanced countries – Japan, South Korea, Western Europe – is well known. But the "great majority of the world's populations with sub-replacement fertility in fact reside in low-income societies," Eberstadt writes. The trading of fertility rights on the open market – combined with the aggressive marketing of international adoption agencies – might lead to even more radical shrinkage of countries already below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman such as Moldova (1.28), Thailand (1.65), Lebanon (1.78), and Vietnam (1.93).

What Turner ignores, of course, is that Americans are responsible for nearly five times the global average for per-capita carbon emissions.  Even the most environmentally responsible Americans have a carbon footprint twice the size of the global average. In other words, our consumption of things – not their production of babies – is the problem.

The solution to climate change, therefore, is obvious. The countries that have the smallest carbon footprints should adopt U.S. babies. We should send our children to Cambodia, Guatemala, and Moldova where they won't have such a damaging effect on the global environment. Reverse the baby trade now! It's not likely, however, that Ted Turner, the environmental movement, and the international adoption agencies will adopt this slogan any time soon.

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