Over decades now, infertility or the simple desire to offer a child the chance for a better life has sent would-be parents to China in search of a baby to adopt. For so many, it was the perfect match. On one side of the Pacific were well-to-do couples yearning to share their love and good fortune; on the other were a plethora of little girls abandoned by impoverished parents in need of a son to support them in old age, or in violation of the country's so-called one-child policy.
No one liked to think of adoptions in unseemly market terms, but in fact this was a case of supply and demand. Whether paying for egg donors and surrogate mothers in the United States, or for lawyers and adoption agencies abroad, those who sought children knew that lots of money changed hands -- $15,000 to $30,000 in paperwork, travel and fees for a Chinese baby. Still, why call it commerce when such aching needs were concerned, and what did it matter if everyone was better off?
That's how it seemed, anyway, as tens of thousands of babies arrived in the United States in the 1990s and 2000s from Hunan, Guangdong and other provinces with names previously unknown to many of the adoptive parents. The overwhelming majority of adoptees were girls, moving from an often-soulless orphanage into the tearful embrace of a new family and a newly decorated bedroom in the likes of Indiana, Minnesota or California.
Unfortunately, not everything was as it seemed. Although many of the babies indeed were abandoned, demand ultimately began to outpace supply, and as Barbara Demick of The Times' Beijing Bureau recently reported, some babies were taken from birth parents in remote villages by coercion, fraud or kidnapping. Official orphanages, which received $3,000 per child from the adoptive parents, began paying up to $600 per newborn in expenses and more to finders, some of whom were government officials. In recent years, some Chinese parents have begun to talk about how they were threatened or tricked into giving up their daughters, sometimes in lieu of fines they could not afford for having a second or third child.
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There is a cultural divide between the Chinese system's tendency toward secrecy and Americans' belief in their right to know. Given that China is still the largest source of adopted babies in the United States, however, it is imperative that U.S. officials demand openness and transparency regarding the background of these children, and that U.S. agencies deal only with proven, reputable orphanages in China. The Chinese must bend over backward to clarify the origins of babies and to create a thorough databank of information to ensure that all babies are offered for adoption voluntarily. No parent should be forced or tricked into relinquishing a child.
The donations that adoptive parents are required to pay to orphanages -- raised to
about $5,000 last year -- also should be dropped or redirected. The Chinese government considers this a social welfare fee to help fund the orphanages and care for the children who are still there, many of them with special needs. It should fund these orphanages in a way that does not create local incentives to find more babies for adoption.
In the past, Americans may not have dreamed that their pursuit of parenthood could create a market for abandoned or abducted children -- obviously that was never their intention. But now that the issue has come to light, they too must be vigilant. Their children inevitably will ask where they came from, who they are and why they were put up for adoption. For the sake of both parents and children, they should have answers.
I concur wholeheartedly with the call for transparency (I said as much here), though I can't say that I'm hopeful that that will happen. I don't think the U.S. has the will to press China on this issue, elevating other issues of trade and debt and Taiwan and you-name-it over integrity in adoption.