Despairing search that drives people to illegality abroad: Decline in children offered for adoption created by growing use of contraception and abortion. Rosie Waterhouse reports

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The Independent Online
DESPERATION for a child, lack of babies available for adoption in Britain and the large numbers of apparently unwanted children overseas are the factors that usually drive couples to adopt babies from abroad, and occasionally to buy them.

Couples wishing to adopt in Britain face many, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles. Most important is the progressive decline in the number of normal, healthy babies offered for adoption since the Seventies, which occurred mainly because of increased use of contraception and abortion.

Changes in social attitudes and the removal of the stigma from unmarried mothers has also reduced the number of children unwanted at birth.

For example, in 1977 nearly 13,000 children were adopted, about 3,000 of them less than one year old. In 1991, the total had nearly halved to just over 7,000 and those adopted soon after birth fell to under 900.

As a result of the shortage of available children, local authority and voluntary adoption agencies had to limit the number of couples allowed to adopt. Many put restrictions on the ages so that women over a certain age were not eligible. As a result, more and more couples began to look overseas.

Until 1990, intercountry adoption was relatively uncommon - only about 50 a year in England and Wales were of children brought here to be adopted and many of those were related to the adopting parents.

An unknown number of children were brought in via the 'back door', without prior entry clearance from the Home Office. The National Association for the Childless has estimated that the actual number of overseas adoptions rose from about 200 in 1986 to 800 in 1990.

But after the overthrow of Romania's Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989 hundreds of British couples travelled to Romania after television programmes revealed the fate of tens of thousands of children abandoned in orphanages. In two years an estimated 800 children were brought to Britain for adoption from Romania alone.

Stories began to emerge of baby trafficking, with couples paying the natural mother or middlemen.

In 1991 the Romanian government introduced strict new laws to control foreign adoption. Western countries put limits on the number of adoptions from abroad they would consider in a year, and Britain and Romania have agreed on an annual quota of just five.

The restrictions on who may adopt are tight and the procedures complex. Prospective adopters must deal solely with the Romanian government's Committee for Adoptions; the Department of Health must process applications; the Romanian National Adoption Committee will match children to prospective parents.

However, the Mooney case revealed that determined couples could circumvent the regulations, with the help of the natural parents and middlemen. The Mooneys paid about pounds 4,000 for Monica, the child they tried to smuggle out of Romania, sedated and hidden in a box.

Clare Astachnowicz, one of the founders of Stork, a self-help organisation which helps couples adopt from abroad, said: 'Intercountry adoption should be about providing homes for unwanted children. It should not be about serving a market for babies.'

But she added: 'Whilst I cannot condone the Mooneys' methods of trying to obtain a child, I feel tremendous sympathy for them having received such a harsh sentence. The prospect of being separated from their other child must be absolutely dreadful for them'.

(Photograph omitted)