Sunday, May 25, 2008

Bidding for Babies

Ohio is contemplating a law that would let adoptive parents pay a birth mother up to $3000 for her living expenses, according to a report in today's Columbus Dispatch. (Current law allows reimbursement for medical and legal expenses, but not for more general expenses such as rent and groceries.)

I know that pregnancy often puts women in a financial crunch, especially when it's unplanned. I want mothers and their (developing) babies to be well nourished, securely housed, well rested, and just plain nurtured. So why do I feel uneasy about this pending bill?

It's not really true that this law would create a bidding war among prospective parents, which was my initial concern. It would cap the amount of aid at $3000. It's likely that some adoptive parents do already help birth mothers with living expenses in violation of Ohio law, although I have no idea how common this is. If so, this cap would actually level the playing field by bringing a covert practice into the light and regulating it.

So far, so good.

Yet I feel slightly queasy at one rationale that proponents of the bill are giving:
"It is a birth-mom and a baby drain, and it means Ohio couples are losing babies," said Thomas Taneff, a Columbus adoption lawyer. ...

"Why is this important? It's simple," Taneff said. "Probably 25 or 30 percent of our birth moms are adopting out-of-state. This bill will help keep Ohio babies here for Ohio couples."
(Source: Columbus Dispatch)
Am I the only one who thinks that babies start sounding like commodities when they're discussed like goods in an import-export business?

Am I alone in feeling troubled when birth moms are discussed like a natural resource?

If the problem is a bidding war for babies among states - not among would-be adoptive parents - then a patchwork of state laws is not going to solve the problem. It's only going to formalize the competition at the interstate level.

Several policy goals are at stake here, and I think they're all things that decent humans ought to agree on: Selling babies is bad. Keeping babies and mothers healthy is ethically right and fiscally smart. Adoption is a beautiful thing when a woman feels able to go through with it. Birth mothers seeking an open adoption should always have the possibility of a local placement, because obviously if your baby moves to a different state you won't have any chance at a real relationship. And finally, no one should feel compelled to have an abortion or give up a baby for financial reasons alone.

If we care about all of these things, then I think two things need to happen, legislatively. We need a federal law regulating payments from adoptive parents to birth mothers, so that states don't get into stupid competitions over "their" babies. And we need much more generous public assistance for expectant and new mothers. I don't know that bringing back old-style welfare is exactly the answer. But if some pregnant women are in such crisis that the prospect of $3000 or $4000 entices them to send their babies to a family out of state, then the system is broken.

And that's exactly what's happening, according to the Dispatch story. It describes an Ohio couple, recently married, who gave their baby to a Missouri couple. They were facing some relationship struggles over religion (she is Mormon, he is Jewish) and she regarded abortion as completely unacceptable. But the reason they gave up their baby? They were faced with losing their home. She used the $4000 the adoptive couple gave her for living expenses to cover the mortgage, as well as for groceries and utilities. You have to wonder: If they'd had health insurance and enough money for their basic needs, would they have relinquished that baby at all?

Simply allowing Ohio couples to play the same game won't fix the real travesty: the fact that such games are necessary in the first place.

Dutch iris from my garden.


SunflowerP said...

"It is a birth-mom and a baby drain, and it means Ohio couples are losing babies," said Thomas Taneff, a Columbus adoption lawyer. ...

There's a whiff of entitlement about that, an implication that adopting couples' "right" to adopt is being infringed. Could just be unfortunate word choices, but it squicks me out big-time.


Sugarmag said...

You are right, Sungold and no, it doesn't sit well with me, either.

Sungold said...

Yep, it's the stench of entitlement that bothers me, too - along with the awful idea that money alone would shape these life-changing decisions.

The Europeans do so much better in this regard. Germans or Swedes would be appalled by the story of the young Mormon-Jewish couple who gave up their baby due to financies.

Sugarmag said...

You know though, Sungold, thinking about this more I can't help but wonder if there is not more to the story? I can't help but think that if they had really wanted to keep their baby, they would have found a way?

Sungold said...

There might well be more to it. If you click through to the original story in the Dispatch, you'll see a reference to conflicts over their religious difference, though it sounds as though the families were the real problem, not the husband and wife themselves. But the story also says quite unambiguously that the main reason they relinquished their baby was due to financial troubles.

I cannot imagine doing that, myself, as a grown-up in a stable partnership. That's what makes me wonder, too, what else might have been happening. Of course people are not going to tell every detail to the newspaper when it's something this personal, and you might even get highly conflicting accounts from the husband and the wife.

This all makes me think of how taboo it actually is for a couple to give up a baby; ordinarily we think of it as something *unmarried* mothers might choose.